Harrisburg Theater’s flagship season production from director Matt Spencer, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” is a keyhole peek into the family dynamics of three disgruntled middle-aged siblings who get throw punches as they vent their grievances about how stuck they feel in their lives.
Playwright Christopher Durang draws inspiration for his parlor comedy from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, though Durang’s six-time Tony-nominated spin sounds like funnier and less desperate than any writing ever transmitted from Russia. Already.
Set in the Hardwicke family’s Bucks County parlor, decorated as light blue as the room’s mood and the blue herons chirping overhead, the push stage extends to the audience’s feet, inviting us to listen to the very personal family moments as if we’re in the next room. (The ushers invite you to enter the theater through the front door of the stage, if you wish.)
We meet Sonia (Beth McIntosh) and Vanya (Darren Riddle), a restless sister-brother pair stuck in a regular routine of sniping at each other for trivial matters. Sonia and Vanya have no purpose in life and feel too old to generate new role models or perspectives.
Hiding under a shallow surface is the source of their real resentment: they were their parents’ caregivers for 15 years while their sister Masha (Diane Bateman) became a famous movie star. Bateman pulls out all the stops to bring the pretentious, insecure, and above all insufferable Masha to life, successfully creating a fragile woman we love to hate.
When Masha visits, she brings her room-filling ego, her much younger love, Spike (Ryan Dean Schoening), and her plan to brag about her family at a costume party as an entourage. Masha brings five more people as “props” to her Snow White costume. Miss Manners would blush at this breach of etiquette, but it highlights the vanity of Masha’s character.
McIntosh plays the childish, self-pity and passive-aggressive Sonia while incorporating a believable undertone of sarcasm. Despite Sonia’s flaws, it’s still hard not to think of her as the underdog when she outdoes her sister at the costume party and, later, when Sonia finally takes a small step towards her own life.
With his more subdued approach to his character, Riddle nails a climactic moment in the play: Vanya’s meta game-in-a-game monologue about growing up in the 1950s. the time when everyone shared the same memories as a national conscience. Not only is Riddle’s recitation a time capsule that opens up on the cobblestones of memory lane, it reveals his character’s resistance to evolving and his disdain for sassy youngsters like Spike.
Schoening brings a smarmy, arrogant swagger to Spike, a superficial, hypersexual character who temporarily has a wandering eye toward neighbor Nina (Aleax Olivera). While the script doesn’t flesh out Nina much either, Olivera portrays her with a sweet, energetic naivete.
On the fringes of the Hardwicke family is their housekeeper, Cassandra (Gerren Wagner), who even comes on her days off to lend her over-the-top comedy skills to her overbearing persona, a Greek seer who practices voodoo for the greater good. good. This family needs his comedic relief as much as they need his weird interjections and big heart.
Like any family reunion, Russian or otherwise, this piece is poignantly funny and uncomfortably awkward in places, but oddly cohesive when blended and extended family are added. All in all, it’s a fitting ending to Theater Harrisburg’s post-COVID comeback season.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through June 19 at the Krevsky Center, 513 Hurlock St., Harrisburg. For more information on show times and tickets, visit www.theatreharrisburg.com/2021-2022-shows/vanya-sonia-masha-spike/.
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