By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a very funny work. That much has been clearly established in the decade since the original one-act play premiered Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center, was expanded into two acts and later transferred to Broadway quite successfully more than a decade ago.
While it is a comedy, it does have some very dark themes borrowed from Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright who inspired the names in its title. Like a well seasoned and simmered brisket, it does have its succulence, but also some crispy burnt bits that serve to establish its characters more thoroughly. But one does not have to know Chekhov to appreciate its richly textured language or structure any more than one does not have to be a Texan to enjoy that brisket.
Crescent City Stage caps off it 2022-23 season with this final production at the Marquette Theatre on the Loyola University campus, where it has been enjoyed its first season as a resident artistic company. The stakes for Crescent City have been raised by its three principal founding members husband and wife Michael and Elizabeth (née Elkins) Newcomer and Jana Mastecky.
All three members of that triumvirate share in duties to this production with Elizabeth Newcomer as the director, her husband Michael as the scenic and technical director and Mastecky in a starring role as Sonia.
The casting of Mastecky is particularly telling with this production. She plays a tormented role of the sibling that is the most responsible for the care of her elderly parents, but who has done so at cost of her own life. She is a sexually repressed adoptee, who has designs on her older brother Vanya, who is similarly repressed, but gay.
Doug Spearman plays Vanya with a resignation of detachment. He and Sonia have empty lives. Their elderly parents have recently died in the home they’ve all lived for their their lives and they have lost focus. They have never known another relationship save for their siblings and their parents. Vanya fancies himself as an erudite sophisticate, but he is enclosed in a vapid day-to-day existence with little hope of change. Sonia is so clueless that she does not recognize the unhealthy codependence the two have shared for years nor that she could find life outside of the family compound owned by their sister Masha, played rather brilliantly by Lorene Chesley.
Masha is living in a world of her own making based entirely on the successful career she has enjoyed as a film actress. The money brought about by her fame has provided comfort to her parents and sanctuary for her two siblings, neither of whom have enjoyed their own lives or had an opportunity to provide for themselves any significant others. Masha’s latest infatuation is Spike, a beefy boy toy with whom she can have sex at a moment’s notice.
Cody Evans plays Spike, a man short on brains, but long on brawn. He seems to intuit that taking off his clothes at a moment’s notice will create an uneasiness in Vanya and goes at considerable lengths to do so. While it is established early on that Spike is no rocket scientist, he does have motivations that are not expressed openly and he remains as a bit of an enigmatic figure throughout the course of most of the play.
Yvette Bourgeois is solidly cast at Nina, one of Masha’s legions of worldwide fans. She finds a way to ingratiate herself into the odd mix of characters as Masha has returned to the family compound. A clever actor, Bourgeois proves herself to be very capable in her role, enjoying a happy talent for comedic timing.
The pièce de résistance in the work, though, is the character of clairvoyant Cassandra played by Donyae Asante, a non-binary actor who uses they and them pronouns. They are especially hilarious in what turns out to be a comic romp for Asante as a part-time practitioner of voodoo and a housemaid.
With a host of Chekhovian themes, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is at its heart really all about family and dealing with dysfunction in its many manifest ways. In a very short time, Crescent City Stage has proven to be the successor to the Southern Rep tradition of being a producing leader in hiring from the ranks within Actor’s Equity. This production is the final offering of their superb initial season. All theatre lovers should have a keen anticipation for their second season announcement and look forward to what they will produce on stage in the coming year.
Directed by Elizabeth Newcomer, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang runs from Thursday through Sunday from now through June 30, 2023 at 2:30 p.m. (Sat., Sun. & Fri.) and at 7:30 p.m. (Wed. & Thur.) at the Marquette Theater on the Loyola University campus. For tickets click here.