There's a high probability that your enjoyment of the Guthrie's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will be directly related to how familiar you are with the works of Anton Chekhov.
The great Russian playwright's stamp is all over Christopher Durang's modern comedy of manners. Three of the main characters have names pulled right out of Chekhov's work, and one is even referred to as "Uncle Vanya." Those characters spend plenty of time gazing into space and wondering what they've done with their lives.
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Did we mention there's a cherry orchard? Well, Sonia calls it that. The rest think that that's far too grand of a name for a dozen or so trees.
While Durang certainly shows plenty of love for Chekhov, he isn't afraid to poke fun at the playwright. Most of the humor, however, is directed at the characters. These are modern, middle-class Americans who, like their 19th-century counterparts, are finding themselves at loose ends in a changing world.
Vanya and Sonia are brother and sister, and live together in a farmhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside. They lead quiet, isolated lives. For years, they took care of their aging parents. Now that they are gone, the siblings have only each other for company. Support is provided by Masha, their film-star sibling.
It's her unexpected arrival that sets the story in motion. She arrives like a hurricane into the quiet lives of Vanya and Sonia, bringing the extremely handsome -- and extremely childlike -- Spike in tow. Over the course of the play's two and a half hours, the complex relationship among the siblings is laid bare.
Durang employs a comic touch throughout that is steeped in classical literature. In addition to all the Chekhov references, there is also a Cassandra who, like the Greek oracle, shares scary snippets of the future (though I don't remember a Hootie Pie showing up in any ancient legends).
The references do run thick at times, and may make it hard to fathom the significance of certain moments -- or why the actors tend to gaze out into the audience with knowing looks every so often.
The characters, however, grow beyond the influences. There are twists and decisions that happen deep in the play that one of Chekhov's frozen Russians would have never tried.
Joel Sass's direction is top notch, as always. His firm, dramatic hand and light comic touch mesh perfectly with the material. The same is true of the cast, led by a terrific performance by Suzanne Warmanen as the muddled Sonia.
Durang's script occasionally lets them down, especially during a long second-act rant by Vanya that quickly degenerates into a stale "things were better when I was young" speech. Actor Charles Janasz tires mightily, but he can't save the scene. It's a rare bum note in an otherwise thoroughly engaging (if very insider) night of theater.
IF YOU GO:
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Through August 21 Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second, St., Minneapolis $40-$58 For tickets and information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online.
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