Midway through his seventh decade, the prolific satirist Christopher Durang is experiencing a late-career renaissance. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, his loose collage of several Anton Chekhov classics—primarily Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, and The Cherry Orchard—is one of the most-produced American plays of recent years. In 2013, it fetched both the Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award for Best Play. Its initial 2012 production at Princeton University, and its subsequent off-Broadway and Broadway stagings came loaded with star power, featuring Frasier alumnus David Hyde Pierce and—in the role of an middle-aged movie star whose anxiety about her fading marquee value makes her kind of a bitch—Durang’s long-ago Yale drama school classmate, Sigourney Weaver. The cast’s the thing, to misquote a Danish prince who’d fit right in with Chekhov’s wretched crew of navel-gazing depressives.
Well, the director, too. Arena Stage’s handsome D.C. premiere of Vanya and Sonia comes from cool-handed Aaron Posner. He’s guided a conspicuous number of the best things in D.C. playhouses over the last decade. As a playwright, he’s offered his own irreverent updates of Chekhov, in 2013’s sublime Stupid Fucking Bird—inspired by The Seagull—and his more recent, almost-as-good Uncle Vanya riff, Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous).
It’s almost certainly cheating to compare Durang’s Chekhov smoothie to the more faithful glosses Posner has subsequently written. (A little fucking bird told me he’s tackling The Cherry Orchard next.) But life, as Chekhov observed with more eloquence than almost anybody, is not fair. Vanya and Sonia might play better if SFB and Life Sucks were not so fresh in memory, but in their wake, it feels glib, overlong, and insubstantial, neither as funny nor as soulful as both Chekhov and Posner have conditioned us to expect. Everyone shows up admirably, and Sherri L. Edelen as Sonia is particularly strong, tapping a deeper (or maybe just different) vein of emotion than in the musical roles for which she’s best known. A scene wherein her repressed character takes a phone call from an unseen suitor asking her on her first date in decades is the most trenchant moment in the show, down to Edelen’s ability to play four emotions at once. It’s an A-level performance in the service of a B- or C+ script. Maybe it was subtler in Russian?
In Durang’s scenario, frumpy shut-ins Vanya (Eric Hissom, a lifetime member of the Aaron Posner Players) and his stepsister Sonia gave their best years to caring for their infirm, Chekhov-loving parents and never bounced back after they died. Now in their 50s and living in a comfortable Bucks County, Penn. country house paid for by their glamorous, globetrotting sister Masha (Grace Gonglewski), they spend their days sulking in bathrobes. Masha drops in with her new boyfriend Spike (Jefferson Farber)—a sinewy, tatted-up imbecile a generation younger than she—threatening to sell the place. Hijinks ensue.
It is, as an actor-pal of mine rightly observed, evocative of a lot middling ’90s sitcoms. Every character here can be fully rendered in two adjectives, and none is afforded the dignity of being able to surprise us. Jessica Frances Dukes wrings more humor from her supporting part as Cassandra, the soothsayer/maid than a lesser actor could, but she’s a straight-up wacky neighbor. And even after that childless MILF Masha undergoes a wholly unconvincing 11th-hour quick-change in temperament, resolving to treat her helpless siblings with kindness, she persists in bossing around the only person of color on stage. (“Any age, probably African American,” is how Cassandra is described on page one of the script.)
It’s almost always a mistake to conflate the playwright with the character, of course, but when Hissom’s celibate-gay Vanya stops the show for a 15-minute paroxysm about the good old days of the monoculture with the all-caps refrain, “AND WE LICKED POSTAGE STAMPS,” it’s tough not to picture Durang suffering a massive coronary while trying to bludgeon a flock of pigeons with his umbrella. His jabs at Hollywood, delivered via Masha and Spike, are too vague to land with any power: The movie franchise that made Masha rich is called Sexy Killer? Spike’s near-miss with fame came via “the sequel to Entourage, Entourage 2?” Masha’s personal assistant is named Hootie Pie?
“Let everything on the stage be just as complex and at the same time just as simple as in life,” Chekhov wrote. Durang manages only the second part.
The cast is also the draw of Round House Theatre’s stirring new Uncle Vanya, using a recent variant by Annie Baker, the 2014 Pulitzer winner whose plays Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens were at Studio Theatre in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Silence and the clumsiness of language are big parts of Baker’s work. In adapting Chekhov’s 117-year-old opus (from a “literal translation” by Margarita Shalina), she has tried to restore the roughness that the original Russian audiences would’ve heard before the play was consecrated and canonized. (The word “creep” is used where prior adapter Peter Carson said “eccentrics,” to cite but one example highlighted in the program.)
Aside from ringers like Mitchell Hébert as Vanya and Kimberly Gilbert as Sonya, with the delightfully overqualified likes of Nancy Robinette and Mark Jaster filling out the smaller roles, the eclectic company includes three present and past artistic directors. Studio Theatre founder Joy Zinoman’s turn as Maria is her first pro acting gig in 40 years. She’s capable, as is former Round House head Jerry Whiddon as Serebryakov, the aged, egotistical professor who outsources his suffering to everyone around him. But the show’s most welcome surprise is current Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette, who’s grown a louche ‘stache to play Astrov, the country doctor who pines hungrily for Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey’s remote, sexy Yelena while Gilbert’s Sonya pines chastely for him. Rilette isn’t merely good; he’s terrific, bringing a nervy impatience and barrel-chested vitality to the part that makes the character’s ennui and resignation resonate with even greater pathos.
Set designer Misha Kachman’s rendering of the only country house is rustic and inviting: Eight thick tree stumps punch through the worn floorboards, and a suspended tarp enforces a sense of confinement. Colin K. Bills’ lighting scheme recreates the hazy shimmer of suffocating, humid nights, while sound designer Eric Shimelonis completes the illusion with his buzzing insects and neighing horses. Shimelonis and Jaster perform their impish original score live on stage on accordion and harmonica, respectively, suggesting a world of crumbling civilities not unlike the one in Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Director John Vreeke punctuates the many long speeches with fleeting, memorable images, like when he has Robinette ride a bicycle across the back of the stage. She looks giddy and uncertain, like the bicycle is the tiny serving of mirth she’ll find in a long day of labor. It’s less than a minute, but it’s as indelible as Gilbert’s sublime rendering of Sonya’s climactic pledge to endure her unhappiness “until my life comes to its natural end.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. $55–$100. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.
Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $10–$50. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.