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Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

As the lights came up at the start of Cleveland Play House’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, the audience is exposed to a comfortable large morning room, backed up by a piano area, and stairs to an upstairs.  On stage left is a patio, on stage right the house’s entrance.  Were in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in a home situated on a lake.

A man (Vanya) enters carrying a cup of coffee.  He is comfortably attired. He sits in an overstuffed chair, and looks out.  Shortly, he is followed by a woman (Masha) in a worn bathrobe.  The duo spars, like a long-time married couple because the usual morning routine of her bringing him his coffee has been broken by Vanya having poured himself his java.  Masha becomes incensed, stomps into the piano room and tosses the extra cup against the wall.  It appears that we are about to observe a domestic battle.

Soon, however, its is revealed that Vanya and Sonia are brother and sister, well, adopted sister, and have remained for their entire lives in their family home, taking care of their parents who eventually died.  The duo stayed put.  They seldom leave the house,  have no friends, and spend their time waiting for, or discussing the impending arrival of a blue heron.  Soon, a third sibling, Masha,  arrives with a surprise guest, and the uneasy tranquility is threatened.

Masha is an actress who has made her fame in a series of slasher cult films.  The guest is her boy toy, Spike, her mid-life crisis prize for yet another failed marriage and a fading career.

A costume party, the possibility of selling the home, failed attempts to reconcile the family, the appearance of a young next door neighbor, Spike’s infidelity, a tirade by Vanya, a play reading, a strip tease, Voodoo, an attack on societal change, and a surprise ending, all highlight this comedy of missed opportunities

The conversations, the setting, the format of the story and the language are all “American Chekov.”  As with the great Russian writer, who is sometimes called the literary father of the Russian revolution, the script is filled with references to family, societal collapse, the uncalled for sticking to traditions, the ignoring of financial problems, and the need to take personal responsibility.

Author Christopher Durang, who penned this commercial and artistic success, and won a Tony Award for Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, has taken up the mantle of writing a well-conceived modern, realistic play, and added a layer of humor that makes for an endearing evening of theatre.  The Broadway production recouped its $2.75 million dollar investment in under four months, an outstanding feat brought about by rave reviews, strong word-of-mouth, and quality performances.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the directorship of Bruce Jordan, almost reaches the show’s potential level of excellence.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t totally practice what he preaches in his “Director’s Notes,” about actors understanding why a certain word in a line has to be stressed, or why they have to get to the end of the line quickly.”  He loses laughs and comedy angst through slow pacing and having two cast members who simply don’t perform as required to achieve the best effect.

On the plus side, John Scherer is excellent as the gay, reclusive, intellectual Vanya, who has wasted his talents and any hope of a personal life, by spending most of his life taking care of his parents and sharing time only with his sister.  There is a kindness, vulnerability and complacency that flow forth from Scherer, equalizing the fine Broadway performance of David Hyde Pierce.

Toni DiBuono is wonderful as the frustrated Sonia, the adopted daughter who was taken out of foster care by two intellectual professors, who named all their children after characters in Chekov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, and set them on paths of insecurity and self-doubt.   She parallels the performance of Kristine Nielsen, who was nominated for a Tony for her Big Apple portrayal of Sonia.  DiBuono is totally natural, creating a sensitive, self-questioning, insecure woman, with a lovely soul.

Danielle Lee Greaves as Cassandra, the cleaning woman who fancies herself a practitioner of Voodoo, complete with making dire prophesies which often come true, is properly farcical in the role.  She does not overplay, but gets many reactions as we laugh with her, not at her.

As Nina, who is a guest at the house next door, Maren Bush, is properly star-struck and adorable.  Nice reality here!

Young Gregory Isaac Stone lacks the acting chops and sensual complexity to fully develop Spike, a role which appears to be one dimensional, but takes a depth of performance abilities.  Billy Magnussen, was nominated for the Tony as Best Featured Actor for his portrayal of the role in the Broadway production.   Magnussen had the charisma to not only look like the gym-sculpted stud who had trouble keeping his clothes on, but to subtly tease Vanya, do a sensual strip tease, entice a response with a sly smile and flash of his huge eyes, but to play comedy as a serious exercise.  Stone, on the other hand, is “Spike-lite.”

Director Jordan describes Masha as someone who says “some rather vitriolic stuff, but there has to be something in the person who plays the role and in the performance that allow us to see that this is not a bitch, this is somebody who’s a little insecure.”  Oh, if only Margaret Reed had played her that way.

To picture the woman and the right performance, think of Wendie Malick portraying Victoria Chase on television’s HOT IN CLEVELAND.  Malick makes the viewer like her and laugh by wearing a crust of arrogance while Victoria’s insecurities eat away at the surface.  Reed, starting with her first entrance, has the effect of pricking a balloon and letting out all the air of humor and believability of the other performers.  She acts, doesn’t react, she feigns rather than being real.

Bill Clarke’s set is outstanding.  Filled with family heirlooms, the realism enhances the performances.

Area alert:  Christopher Durang thanked his husband, John Augustine, in his Tony acceptance speech.  Augustine, is a Canton native and Baldwin Wallace graduate.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is a well-crafted play filled with comedy and tenderness.  It well deserved its Tony Award.  Though the CPH production does not live up to the Broadway production, some fine performances overcome some questionable directorial decisions in actor selection and character development, and make this a positive, but not great theatrical experience.

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE runs through April 26, 2015, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to