Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre– Theatre review

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From left: Gary Douglas (Vanya), Jonah Ethan Snyder (Spike) and Courtney Riel Owens (Cassandra) in Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography

By: Anita W. Harris
Culture Writer

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a Chekhov-inspired yet thoroughly modern comedic play about age encountering youth and confronting itself. Three middle-aged siblings, each stuck in different ways, interact with two younger people during two intense days. A lot of complaining, competing and catharsis ensues. At the end, what remains for the siblings is satisfying in unexpected ways.

At least four different Anton Chekhov dramas are explicitly woven into this Tony Award-winning 2012 comedy by Christopher Durang– The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. The siblings’ names are borrowed from these works, as are many of the play’s themes. But beyond that, the play expresses its own versions of the existential questions that plague Chekhov’s characters.

Vanya (Gary Douglas) and adopted sister Sonia (Susan E. Taylor) live together in their childhood home, having cared for their parents through Alzheimer’s until they passed away. Younger sister Masha (Andrea Stradling), a famous actress (though not so young anymore), has been sending them money but only now visits, bringing Spike (Jonah Ethan Snyder), her much younger boyfriend. Meanwhile, housekeeper Cassandra (Courtney Riel Owens) makes hilariously accurate visionary prophecies of doom, and spritely young neighbor Nina (Gabrielle Boyd) flounces in, igniting jealousy in Masha.

Over the course of two days, the characters (and audience) experience a variety of surprising events: a “reverse” striptease by Spike; dressing for a costume party in which Sonia effectively channels Dame Maggie Smith; Cassandra’s voodoo torturing of Masha; and an aborted reading of Vanya’s play-in-progress on climate change with molecules as characters, culminating in the longest nostalgic rant you’ve ever heard about a time when people actually had to lick postage stamps.

The structure of the play allows for these unusual events, though sometimes at the expense of logical sense. In addition to the relationships among the siblings, the play attempts to create cohesion through repetition, with multiple, sometimes unnecessary, references to blue herons, cherry orchards, Entourage 2 and a woman named Hootie Pie. Pacing can also seem uneven at times, not necessarily due to direction by Ryan Holihan but rather the arrangement of the play itself. Sometimes characters seem to get an undue amount of monologue time while the other characters have not much to do. But the overall arc of the siblings’ story does ultimately resolve its tensions meaningfully.

All the actors seem to find and sustain the core of their characters. Jonah Ethan Snyder is natural as the somewhat clueless, insipid Spike with a propensity to undress. But it’s the three women who really shine in this production. Andrea Stradling is perfect as narcissistic Masha. True to her character, she commands the stage from the moment she enters the siblings’ home, moving and speaking with ease and confidence. In addition to her dry humor, Susan E. Taylor brings feeling and sympathy to Sonia’s evolving character. Her monologue while on the phone with a potential suitor is especially moving. Courtney Riel Owens plays quirky Cassandra to the fullest, owning the absurdity of her character’s seemingly random predictions.

The living room of the siblings’ home is designed (by Spencer Richardson) in a cozy, slightly drab way that evokes its age and comfort, which works well with the theme. Costume changes (Donna Fritsche) similarly reflect subtle shifts in character development.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike offers a rather unusual entertainment experience that shakes one out of logical expectation and toward what just feels true. Perhaps that kind of realization has always been the function of theatre, even before Chekhov.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through May 27. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20-$24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014, or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.

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