Much of the work for which playwright Christopher Durang became known in the 1970s and ’80s—Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Baby with the Bathwater, the Tennessee Williams parody For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls—are brazen, often angry satire. Which makes the warmth of this 2013 comic riff on Chekhov an unexpected but not unwelcome wrinkle. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, as well as the play’s two additional characters, Nina (yep) and Cassandra, are over-the-top and a little ridiculous—a key plot point involving a costume party has everyone onstage dressed as characters from Disney's Snow White for a good chunk of time—but they’re also unmistakably human.
Bickering, depressive siblings Vanya (Ross Lehman) and Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) live lives of dreadful leisure, trapped in stasis in the country house in which they grew up and cared for their now-deceased parents while sister Masha (Mary Beth Fisher) traveled the world as a successful actress. Masha arrives home with a hunky, much younger and clothing-averse boyfriend, Spike (Jordan Brown), along with plans to sell the house. Sonia and Vanya are horrified at the prospect of losing their home, while Masha’s vanity is threatened by Spike’s attentions to Nina (Rebecca Buller), an attractive young aspiring actress from next door. Borrowing from another dramatic era, Durang throws in Cassandra (E. Faye Butler), a cleaning lady who sees prophetic visions.
Durang’s farcical Chekhovian parallels are deftly deployed, just self-aware enough to be short of obnoxious. Steve Scott’s first-rate cast finds all of the highbrow fun in the play’s allusions to The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. But they also key in to the real Chekhovian pathos Durang bakes into their characters. Fisher, who played Madame Arkadina in Robert Falls’s Seagull at the Goodman a few years back, sinks her teeth into a neurotically obnoxious version of the same character here. And both Brooks and Lehman get grand Act II tours de force: Lehman with an epic, explosive rant about simpler times, and Brooks, alone onstage, playing one side of a simple phone call like a symphony orchestra.
Goodman Theatre. By Christopher Durang. Directed by Steve Scott. With Janet Ulrich Brooks, Mary Beth Fisher, Ross Lehman, E. Faye Butler, Jordan Brown, Rebecca Buller. Running time: 2hrs 45mins; one intermission.