News Column

10 reasons to go and see City Theatre's 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

October 22, 2013

YellowBrix

There's a house party going on at City Theatre with the season opener "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

Playwright Christopher Durang fed the pages from Anton Chekhov's greatest hits into a paper shredder and added a chapter of Greek mythology and a trivia guide to '50s pop culture to produce this clever shower of confetti, which won the 2013 Tony Award for best play.

The story takes place in the family's Bucks County home, where Vanya (Harry Bouvy, outstanding as the calm peacemaker with a passive-aggressive leaning) and his adopted sister, Sonia (Sheila McKenna, who brings dour and disappointed to a new level), stayed to care for their now-deceased parents -- intellectuals who named their still resentful children after Chekhov characters.

Sister Masha (the never disappointing Helena Ruoti) escaped to become a larger-than-life movie star. "I can't help it if I'm beautiful and intelligent and successful, can I?" she asks with gentle humility.

Masha owns the house and pays the bills, but makes a surprise return -- with her young lover Spike in tow -- to sell the family home. Self-centered and glamorous, the aging star loses her composure when the innocent and lovely Nina (Hayley Nielsen, last seen at City in "Little Gem") shows up, distracting Spike.

But enough of the setup. Here are the Top 10 reasons you should buy a ticket:

1. Because you like having bragging rights. This play closed on Broadway a mere two months ago, on Aug. 25. You can be one of the first to see a new production.

2. Because you love/hate Chekhov. Those who can't get enough of the Russian playwright will revel in the elbow poke, nod and raised eyebrows signifying, "Yes, that's from 'The Seagull' or "Uh-huh -- 'The Three Sisters.' " Those who could live without him, can enjoy the jokey deconstruction. As Sonia points out: "If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about."

3. Because you've never experienced a reverse strip tease. Masha's boy toy Spike (Karl Glusman, played with a mix of youthful naivete and can't-help-himself flirtation) puts as much suggestive gyrating into putting on clothes as exotic dancers manage in taking them off.

4. Because you could use a lesson in black magic. House cleaner Cassandra (the enthusiastic, energetic and charismatic Amirah Vann) shares her mythological namesake's talent for prophesy that's always ignored. Her portents burst out in a most entertaining way: "Oh wretches, oh misery, oh magical mystery tour. ... I see disaster ahead for all of you! Lunch in about 20 minutes!"

Her skill with voodoo dolls -- and subsequent screams from offstage -- is equally impressive.

5. Because you need a new catchphrase. Choose one of the following. They work best when repeated three times, with feeling.

- "Beware of Hootie Pie!"

- "I am a wild turkey."

- "Olga, we should go to Moscow." ("Olga, we should GO to Moscow?")

- "We licked stamps!"

6. Because you're searching for a Halloween costume. There's Snow White, Prince Charming and a couple dwarves. But Sonia's life- changing Evil Queen, as played by Maggie Smith about to win the Oscar for "Plaza Suite," takes the prize, British accent and all.

7. Because you love HGTV. For a play that could be minimally staged with a few chairs, Tony Ferrieri's set is worthy of an early arrival to admire the effort: Exposed beams, flagstone walls, screen doors and side yards, including a rolled up garden hose. The hallway behind has a lineup of coats hanging on pegs. An umbrella stand's mishmash of styles speaks of a lifetime of use. From this detailed interior, we can "see" the entire house.

8. Because Tracy Brigden brings good things to life. When we see the City Theatre artistic director's hands in the directing role, we know the production is about as good as it can get.

9. Because you're nostalgic for the 1950s. When the repressed Vanya finally hits his breaking point, his exhaustingly explosive rant moves from "Ozzie and Harriet" ("In retrospect, they seemed medicated.") "Old Yeller" and Bishop Sheen to multitasking, a disconnected society and worry for the future.

10. Because you're planning your family reunion. These onstage family dynamics make your sibling rivalries look pretty darn healthy. But, beneath it all, there's true caring among the characters and an ending full of hope.

Sally Quinn is deputy managing editor for features for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7885 or squinn@tribweb.com.

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