What happens to a family when two of the children end up in the shadow of the famous third sibling? Only Christopher Durang has the power to make comedy from this series of tiny daily tragedies while exposing all of our foibles with his fable “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” playing at Paper Mill Playhouse through February 15. There are only eight performances each week and it won’t be enough.
Mark Nelson’s Vanya is dry, wry, and piquant and he balances on the razor’s edge between humor and despair. Fortunately for us, Vanya sees the humor in his situation–he and his sisters are the children of a pair of academics who were addicted to community theatre in general and Chekhov quite particularly. Their daughter Masha (Carolyn McCormick) has parlayed their love of theatre into a career for herself, as she travels the world filming and acting in plays and financing her siblings’ care, while the more reclusive Vanya and Sonia (Michele Pawk) remain in the family home, ultimately taking care of their parents who descend into the swirling maelstrom of Alzheimers, each in his and her own very different way. Worlds collide when Masha acts the cougar to her youthful paramour Spike (Philippe Bowgen), who is a mass of masculine energy, who toys cat-and-mouse with Vanya, who’s gay and open, but has little experience with the wiles of men.
Cassandra (Gina Daniels) is brilliant as the Alice to the neo-Brady Bunch and her island wisdom gives her a perspective that she is wont to share. However, like her namesake, Cassandra has visions that no one quite believes, until the reality of her words hits home–sometimes very hard. Jamie Ann Romero is the earthy, earthly sprite Nina, who weaves a web of wonder among the siblings that nettles some and delights others.
Durang sets the stage for us with a family home in now-tony Bucks County that, like the siblings, has seen better days. He writes generously for each character providing philosophical moments for Nina, brilliant character opportunities for Cassandra and Spike and each of these characters runs with his or her bit. Daniels’ voodoo priestess moments are delightful and Nina-as-Philosopher is an old soul in a more nubile form. It is the growth of McCormick’s Masha, as she goes from Freudian id to the more faceted person that she taps for her acting, that is wonderful to experience–long and slow and surprising when the impact fully comes home. When Pawk has her conversation with a gentleman–Sonia’s first beau–who would like to come calling, it is poignant and arresting. Pure frissons of pleasure rolled through me during Vanya’s jeremiad that becomes an aria to what has changed that’s wonderful and what we’ve lost through change. To those of us who began on typewriters and now do text messaging, it is a speech that wraps tendrils around your heart and your psyche. These are all arias and recitative in the complicated opera of daily life, so don’t be fooled by the lack of a composer. You will feel the music in your heart. It is Durang’s heart that turns these micro tragedies into high comedy and higher art.
Now is the perfect time to forget the chocolates when you remember your funny Valentine. Give him or her the gift of a Tony® Award-winning play with tickets to this dazzling show. Visit the box office at 973/376-4343 or www.PaperMill.org