No Chekhov knowledge needed to find meaning, humor in side-splitting Chekhovian play

 Photo by Roger Mastroianni 

Photo by Roger Mastroianni 

Be wary of your blood pressure before attending Christopher Durang’s rich, layered, prize-winning play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” on-stage at Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre through April 26. 

When you combine Durang’s tear-inducing laugher with the tears spilling from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov characters, you don’t want too much salt in your system.
Consider: There’s a voodoo-practicing psychic, Cassandra, who serves as the cleaning lady for two blue main characters and forecasts more misery for them. They’re “contentedly discontent” passing into their twilight years at their Pennsylvania country house, sipping coffee and watching for blue herons when they’re not bickering.
Sharp wit and deftly executed slapstick translate into a delicious comic confection with several Chekhov quips.

Durang’s Tony Award winning comedy, in which the playwright doesn’t seek to poke fun at Checkhov but borrow his characters and themes, is the most frequently performed show in regional theater. No knowledge of the Russian dramatist (1860-1904) is necessary to be moved or entertained. This play’s not just a laughfest; there’s pathos and you’ll walk away considering your life choices and situation. 

How does one define success? Has our technology-inundated world replaced close relationships? You’ll also ponder these questions.

The blood pressure of Vanya and Sonia rise early on. The argument at hand: One of Sonia’s only pleasures in life is serving her adoptive brother coffee. Why did he dare to go behind her back and get it himself this day? This is a no-laughing matter to the bipolar Sonia.
The two have spent a good part of their life caring for their aging parents at their rural Pennsylvania country house (designed spaciously, orderly and with exquisite detail by Bill Clarke, who gives it a homey aura). As beautifully designed by Clarke, it’s easy to see why it’s a prized home and the notion of selling it, which comes up later in the play, upsets Vanya and Sonia. There’s also a blue backdrop peaking through set pieces; how appropriate for a play in which the characters are, well, blue. As the play progresses, bright colors blend in, suggesting better times.

The hopeful seller is Vanya’s conceited blood sister, Masha, a fading movie star who’s had multiple husbands and at first appearance has lived a care-free, glamorous life. 
Masha and her “sexy boy toy” friend, Spike enter the scene, upending Vanya and Sonia’s humdrum life. 

Durang has deftly structured the play; the first act occurs before a costume party to which Masha’s been invited and which she allows her siblings to attend. The first act is largely when Vanya and Sonia’s boring existence is at its worst.

But never underestimate the transformative power of disguise and unmasking, even though the siblings bicker about which costumes to wear. Mimi Maxmen’s costumes define the characters’ personalities and the dress-up costumes for the party are visual pleasures.
Dress-up rejuvenates Vanya and Sonia’s outlook, especially Sonia’s, leading to a night to remember — and one to forget for Masha, who can’t bear someone stealing the spotlight from her.

Ironically, the power of disguise helps unmask Sonia and Vanya, bringing them out of their shells and making them realize their life hasn’t amounted to an empty existence.
The performances are more than worthy. Much credit goes to director Bruce Jordan, creator of the zany “Shear Madness,” which holds the Guinness Book of World Record title for longest running play in U.S. history. He’s helped the actors perfect their comic timing and made sure they stress the necessary words to achieve the appropriate effect. Jordan’s also staged the play in a highly physical, suggestive manner, enhancing the humor.

Masha can be conceited, but as played by Margaret Reed, she doesn’t come across as a witch. Reed invests Masha with star power, sexiness and confidence. This Masha, while putting on superior airs, is clearly happy to see her siblings, for whom she’s been working to pay the bills. And by the end, she changes for the better, becoming a likable character.

Gregory Isaac Stone creates a shameless Spike, conjuring the image of a young Jim Carrey.

As Sonia, chubby Toni DiBuono’s mannerisms and facial suggest a manic depressive Kathy Bates. DiBuono makes Sonia’s happiness seem so foreign a feeling, you can’t help but be glad as she gains confidence and realizes her worth.

Vanya’s appears to have accepted his humdrum, empty life. Actor John Scherer finds the right combination of a sad smile and a (mostly) calm, content aura. Scherer saves his biggest moment for the end, when his character unleashes a seemingly never ending diatribe against a society awash with technology. Spike represents the current generation of texting, while Vanya vehemently argues a life of “Ozzie and Harriet” and snail mail. The speech comes across as a little too sentimental. I wanted to see more anger addressed at Spike, as Vanya champions a simpler past.

A wide-eyed, dramatic Danielle Lee Greaves has powerful lungs and mostly puts them to good use as the mysterious Cassandra. But her voice could take on a more otherworldly character as she proclaims her predictions of doom. However, Greaves takes her character seriously, which is necessary when playing such a comic character.

Cassandra is one of Durang’s comic creations that will leave you laughing until you’re coughing or crying with laughter.

Better hold off on that salt ... or ensure your blood pressure can take it.

WHAT: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
WHEN: Various times through April 26
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
HOW MUCH: Tickets range $39-$79 each. Students younger than 25 with a valid ID will be offered a special $15 ticket price. Tickets are also $25 for anyone younger than 35. 
To order single tickets, call 216-241-6000 or visit
Groups of 10+ save up to 40% off single ticket prices; call 216-400-7027.