VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (Philadelphia Theatre Company): Absurdist Farce on Russian Angst

Grace Gonglewski as Masha, Kraig Swartz as Vanya, and Deirdre Madigan as Sonia in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

Grace Gonglewski as Masha, Kraig Swartz as Vanya, and Deirdre Madigan as Sonia in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

The angst-laden work and gloomy characters of Anton Chekhov provide funny fodder and apropos appellations for Christopher Durang’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, now in production at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The Bucks County playwright set his Tony Award-winning comedy where he lives, making for a decidedly quirky yet familiar combination of current local references and recurrent allusions to the Russian classics in a zany family reunion filled with adult sibling rivalry and childish temper tantrums.

Directed by James J. Christy, the hilarious ensemble captures all the neurotic neediness, extreme self-absorption, embittering self-pity, and self-induced drama of the wacky characters, with uproarious performances by Grace Gonglewski as the returning sister Masha (an aging actress prone to histrionics and bad relationships), Kraig Swartz as Vanya (her self-effacing and insecure gay brother who finally lets loose with an unexpected rave about then and now), and Deirdre Madigan as Sonia (their vulnerable bipolar adoptive sister, who lives with Vanya in the childhood home they never left, and rarely leave). They get fine support from Alec Shaw as Spike (Masha’s over-sexed and narcissistic 20-something boy-toy) and Clare O’Malley as the neighbors’ sweet niece Nina (an aspiring actress and fan unwittingly invited into the family drama).  Kianne Muschett rounds out the cast, delivering hyperbolic prognostications of doom as Cassandra (the aptly named cleaning lady with a voodoo doll and an attitude).

The ensemble (Kraig Swartz, Deirdre Madigan, Kianne Muschett, Alec Shaw, Clare O’Malley, and Grace Gonglewski) of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

The ensemble (Kraig Swartz, Deirdre Madigan, Kianne Muschett, Alec Shaw, Clare O’Malley, and Grace Gonglewski) of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

David P. Gordon’s impressive set defines Bucks County rural chic, as the bucolic birch trees, stone fireplace, and wicker furniture of the relaxing environment contrast with the characters’ personal anxieties and inter-personal hostilities. Though their sudden self-awareness and quick resolutions seem a bit too easy in the final scene, they provide for a hopeful future and a happy ending, and bring a surprisingly touching conclusion to the comic antics. As are the laughs, those more sincere and nuanced emotions are played to perfection by the talented cast. [Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S Broad St] March 21-April 20, 2014; www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.  

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.