Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Review: The Case of the Disappearing Laughter ("Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at ACT Theatre)

Pamela Reed, R. Hamilton Wright and Marianne Owen (Chris Bennion)
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Through November 16, 2014

The reviews from New York productions of Christopher Durang’s new play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike pretty universally call it funny and even more. “Few Chekhov-inspired shows make you laugh out loud, and repeatedly at that. In fact there’s probably just one such rare bird on the planet,” says the New York Post.

So, if the current production of Durang’s play at ACT Theatre is not so funny, even with a cast one might expect truly humorous acting from, what might be the problem? This production has a few laughs in it, from time to time, but one does not experience an audience as the New York Times did … “The theater erupts in booming gusts of laughter that practically shake the seats.” Your faithful reviewer did not see any kind of indication of that in the slightest at ACT Theatre for the entire evening.

Encapsulating the play, Durang has essentially picked up characters from Chekhov’s plays and placed them in a modern context. Vanya (R. Hamilton Wright), Sonia (Marianne Owen) and Masha (Pamela Reed) are siblings born to educated parents who named them after Chekhov characters. Vanya and Sonia, who tells everyone she is adopted about a hundred times, have stayed in their Bucks County, Pennsylvania home and taken care of the property and their aging parents. Masha has become a celebrated actress and made enough money to be the monetary support of the family.
Masha has come back to attend a costume ball and to inform her siblings that she’s selling the property because she’s become convinced it’s too expensive. Her announcement puts Vanya and Sonia into a world of confusion, trying to figure out what to do with themselves. Masha has also brought home a young boy toy, Spike (William Poole).

There’s also a prescient housekeeper, Cassandra, performed with playful gusto by Cynthia Jones, and a neighborhood fan of Masha’s, played with youthful exuberance by Sydney Andrews. Of course, Masha begins to worry that Spike might get attracted to the neighbor.

Much of the plot elements sound very similar to Chekhov’s plays. Vanya’s woeful existence and Sonia’s dependence are also straight out of Uncle Vanya. What passed for comedy at ACT, though, felt very much more like mugging. The play itself, the script, did not feel fresh or all that interesting in the delivery, so could part of it be not as strong dialogue? Or would the script have been experienced much differently if a different director than Kurt Beattie had been in charge? The mystery is yours to answer.

Technical elements were at their usual peak with a gorgeous summer cottage porch from Carey Wong and costumes that ranged from upper-crust-tasteful to over-the-top funny from Catherine Hunt. Lighting was appropriately inconspicuous and subtle from Michael Wellborn. However, sound design, from house designer Brendan Patrick Hogan, which is an aspect that usually amazes, felt awkward and inappropriate, particularly in regard to scene-change music. Whoever collaborated on that decision, the weirdly arranged Christmas-style music doesn’t work at all.

The second act does pick up the pace and gain comedy partly from costuming jokes, but the overall feeling of the production is fairly flat. Of course, that is not the usual experience at ACT Theatre, so this might be called a rare miss.

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