TAMPA — Two siblings with Russian names spend their days gazing into the woods behind their late parents' house, where a few cherry trees remind them of happier times. A third sibling with aristocratic airs pays a visit home and announces she plans to sell the property.
An ingenue down the street catches the interest of the wealthier sister's boyfriend, part of a love tetrahedron between that sister and her gay brother. It's all supposed to sound vaguely familiar, yet also mashed up and satirized and rendered absurd. This is what happens when Christopher Durang gets a hold of any story, as the playwright has now tackled Anton Chekhov in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Jobsite Theater opened Durang's farcical take on some of the Russian playwrights's most famous work, particularly The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull, last weekend at the Shimberg Theater in the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
Though the play, directed by Paul Potenza, contains some inside jokes, there are no prerequisites to understanding it. This is a send-up that pokes a little fun at Chekhov's tragedy while also showing deference to him. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike might even do more justice to the farcical spirit of The Cherry Orchard than did Constantin Stanislavski, who in 1904 directed Chekhov's last play as a tragedy.
This Durang play is full of contradictions the playwright seems to have intended, inflicting a level of discomfort you get the feeling he enjoys. It won a 2013 Tony Award for best play, but for long stretches of time begs to be underestimated. All the characters make easy targets for mockery, so when they make fools of themselves you almost feel sorry for them and wonder who would laugh. (That would be the audience, who appeared to enjoy the play thoroughly from beginning to end.)
Vanya and his adopted sister, Sonia, once took care of their dying parents but now merely live on the estate and ruminate over their misery. Masha, an actor who once found a niche somewhere between B-movies and soft porn, returns to attend a costume party. She has a much younger boyfriend in tow, the handsome but vapid Spike (Jamie Jones), whose claim to fame is having almost gotten a part in an Entourage sequel. Oh, and he likes to take off his clothes.
Nina, the aspiring actor down the street (Emily Belvo), worships Masha, who is not thrilled to have competition for Spike. Masha and Spike go to the party as Snow White and Prince Charming. She tries to get everyone else to attend as dwarves, but the erstwhile wallflower Sonia upstages her with a thrown-together costume as the evil queen.
Spike gambols about the set or goes for a jog in his underwear. Sonia and Masha enjoy a sustained and substantial conversation at the start of the second act, then end it with I Love Lucy style bawling. This is Durang's world. It's not easy to navigate, and much credit goes to Roz Potenza as Sonia and Elizabeth Fendrick as Masha for playing such over-the-top characters in ways that are not over the top. A soothsaying cleaning woman (Jonelle Meyer), appropriately named Cassandra after Greek mythology, goes in the opposite direction, relating quavering prophesies every so often with as little restraint as possible.
All of which raises the question about a play written by an architect's son and Ivy League graduate: Is this blue-blood humor, tearing down what is left of already battered egos, pretensions so absurd anyone could poke holes in them? Would a deeper knowledge of Chekhov make it more bearable?
Then toward the end, the trajectory of the show and its apparent shallowness does a 180. Vanya becomes enraged while reading his strange script about life after climate change because Spike is texting during the performance. Brian Shea as Vanya delivers an impassioned and brilliant 14-minute monologue lamenting the passage of older ways — of Hayley Mills giving way to Lindsay Lohan and Howdy Doody to South Park, a time when a nation grieved the mercy killing of Old Yeller. It's an amazing piece of theater, in a play which up until then I thought I hated.
Durang might be your cup of tea and he might not be. But whatever you think of him, he can't be underestimated. This show can be tough going, whether deliberately so or not is hard to say. But if you stick it out for nearly two and a half hours (including an intermission) you'll hear some good stuff.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.