Vanya et alia

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

What's the balance between comedy and tragedy? That's always the question when you're tackling Chekhov.

Even if you don't know playwright Christopher Durang's work, you can guess from the title of his latest play which side he's going to come down on: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. The Spike sort of gives it away doesn't it?

Vanya, and Sonia and Masha are siblings: their names borrowed from Chekhov by their professor parents to honor their passion for community theater. Instead of the Russian countryside, we're in present day Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Our setting is the family home - well, Masha owns it but Vanya and Sonia have lived there their whole lives. And given that this is a production at the Mark Taper Forum - the setting could be thought of as their latest addition to the 'vacation homes you wouldn't mind owning' series.

The family backstory that Mr. Durang has cooked up has Vanya and Sonia nearing retirement but never having worked - at least outside the home. You see, they stuck around and cared for their aging parents. Meanwhile Masha, the youngest, went off to become a famous actress: travelling the world and sending back checks to pay for everything.

Borrowing a plot twist from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Masha returns to announce she's selling the house. Let the family drama ensue . . .

Now this being a Christopher Durang play, we have Spike. Spike is Masha's latest boy toy: half her age, he's a walking set of ripped abs and pecs that will strip down to his undies at the slightest provocation. The cast is rounded out by Nina who, like her Chekhovian namesake, is an aspiring actress and Cassandra the African-American maid who, as her name would suggest, can prophesy the future but with a sassy voodoo twist.

Chances are this is the Taper play you've heard about: Tony Award, Broadway, the whole deal. So if you're a Durang fan or dying to see it, listen no further, go. Enjoy.

For folks on the fence, I couldn't help feeling like the play is aspiring to be more than it is. Frankly, more Chekhovian. Once you've made it through all the comedic setups and clever references, you're left with an aging family looking back and mourning the life they miss or missed. Missing is the promise of the future, whether it's a return to Moscow or a life of work or the faint dream of a coming revolution.

When I made it into the final act of Mr. Durang's play, I longed for the other half of the play. Not just the tragedy to balance the comedy but the revelation. Mr. Durang teases us with extended monologues for each of the siblings that hint at something deeper but turn out to be more bluster than insight. "We used to lick postage stamps" is a fairly impotent rallying cry and a sad commentary on our times.

In the end, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is more clever comedy than nourishing drama and it just might leave you with an uncontrollable urge to re-read Chekhov - which is never a bad thing, right?

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through March 9.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image: (L-R): Mark Blum, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and David Hull in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz