What a wild and crazy and sometimes touching play is “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang as presented by Harlequin Productions in Olympia. Under the direction of Scot Whitney, the outstanding ensemble cast plays a group of quirky, absurd and pathetically co-dependent people.
This is absurdist comedy at its very best, almost farcical but far more intelligent than any farce and loaded with twisted literary and cultural references.
Brother and sister Sonia (Lisa Viertel) and Vanya (Bill Johns) live together in the home of their dead parents, former professors and community theater actors who named their children after characters from Anton Chekov plays, thereby almost guaranteeing them messed up lives.
Vanya is a closeted gay man who has apparently never had a love life of any kind. His sister Sonia has apparently never had any kind of life with anybody other than her brother, with whom she spent 15 years taking care of their parents before their death. Sonia is a self-pitying sad sack and Vanya is a cynical wit.
Neither has ever held a job and it seems neither has ever left the house. Their mortgage and all of their living expenses are paid for by their sister Masha (Mari Nelson), an over-the-hill B-movie actress whom they depend upon but cannot stand.
It doesn’t seem possible to wrest absurdist comedy out of such sad characters and desperate situations, but Durang does it marvelously, summing up their ridiculously pathetic lives in a scene in which Sonia cries uncontrollably because she has no life and Masha cries just as inconsolably because her life is over.
This is absurdist comedy at its very best, almost farcical but far more intelligent than any farce, and loaded with twisted literary and cultural references.
The comedy begins with Vanya and Sonia’s ludicrous opening-scene fight over a cup of coffee and escalates when Masha shows up with her ridiculous boy toy Spike (Jake Atwood) in tow.
Also thrown into the mix is a housekeeper, Cassandra (Kristen Wilson) who spouts visions, predictions and curses made up of quotes and misquotes from literature and theater, everything from Shakespeare to popular TV shows; and a young Pollyannaish neighbor, Nina (Alyssa Kay).
Wilson, who is making her Harlequin debut, is a joy to watch. She plays the over-the-top Cassandra with enthusiasm. Nina is loveable and has an infectious smile, but her character is so one-dimensional that it doesn’t allow for Kay, who was fabulous in Harlequin’s “The 39 Steps,” to show off her considerable skills.
Spike thinks of himself as God’s gift to women and loves to strip down to his underwear. Atwood plays him with verve and physical gesturing that hilariously parodies pretty-boy posing. One of the funniest scenes in the play is a kind of reverse strip tease by means of which he erotically teases Sonia and Vanya.
Johns, Nelson and Viertel (the latter also in her Harlequin debut) are outstanding professionals who own their roles — Nelson is expressive to the nth degree, and Johns and Viertel are nuanced and believable as characters who would be hard to believe if portrayed by lesser talents.
The one sore spot in an otherwise brilliant comedy is when Vanya goes on an interminably long rant berating Spike and reminiscing about how great the 1950s were. Although I’m willing to concede that his character, who would have probably been born around 1960, could still be nostalgic for the ’50s, I can’t so easily forgive Durang for writing such a long and repetitious harangue.
One of the most joyful things in the show is when the shut-down and socially awkward Sonia dresses for a costume party and pretends to be Maggie Smith getting ready to accept her Academy Award, and in the process of role playing Sonia blossoms, which leads to a solo monologue (as a telephone conversation) that is the most touching scene in the play.
This is a comedy for people who are well-read, for people who can relate to references to Chekov and Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, and for others who like their theatrical experience to be a little bit challenging — not that you need to get all the references to enjoy it.
Check Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 13.
Where: Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia.
Tickets: $34, $31 for seniors and military, $20 for students and youth.
Information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org.