Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Ustinov Studio)
Janie Dee stars with Rebecca Lacey and Mark Hadfield in Christopher Durang's play
Pay attention, and you'll have fun spotting the many references to Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov in this piece by Christopher Durang. There's the melancholic inertia of Three Sisters, the familial tension from Uncle Vanya and the wasted creativity from The Seagull. There's also an honourable mention (or two) for The Cherry Orchard. It's a night of meta-theatricality which, despite a cast trying admirably hard to make it work, often feels a little laboured and a little smug.
Ultimately the plot boils down to a riff on all of the plays, but Uncle Vanya is the most apparent, with the downtrodden and unhappy Vanya and Sonia looking after the family home while Masha pays the bills through her Hollywood film star lifestyle. It's a visit from Masha, with her new and very young beau in tow, that prompts both a reconnect and an upset between the siblings (they were all named after Chekhov characters, because their parents were fanatics). Throw in a psychic cleaner, a costume party and a young, wannabe actress and you have something resembling mayhem.
And with a cast featuring Janie Dee, Mark Hadfield and Rebecca Lacey, it should be the makings of a rather good comedy. Indeed, Dee is fabulous as the egotistical, selfish and insecure Masha, flitting her hair this way and that. Lacey's Sonia is also very good and as well as provoking humour, she brings out our compassion for the character, specifically in a scene where, to her pure surprise, someone asks her out on a date. Hadfield is a quiet and subdued Vanya throughout but the character's outburst at the end isn't entirely warranted. It feels shoved in for comic effect.
But the problems really come from the fact that the play ultimately isn't that funny and under Walter Bobbie's direction the laughs struggle to land. There's something off key about the entire show, with the comedy being pushed far too hard. And with everything taking place in one room – the house's sun room on David Korins' realistic set – it means the play feels horribly static. More than anything though, the plot is predictable, with fall outs and reconciliations being run through with no real heart or conviction.
Ultimately, this is an often engaging evening, and there are certainly a few laughs to be had, but for what should be an out-and-out comedy, there are not nearly enough.