Nothing like a hefty bout of Chekhovian depression to lift the spirits.
You can't help but feel better after spending time with "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," the 2013 Tony Award-winning comedy by Christopher Durang currently receiving a snappy Baltimore premiere at Center Stage.
Filled with Chekhov references, this tale of three siblings and a stud might try a little too hard and might apply some of its humor with the subtlety of a hammer and sickle. But Durang's clever concoction — a sort of extended, sometimes heady sitcom — entertains consistently.
More than that, it scores worthwhile, if familiar, points about personal and family values, dreams and realities, longing and fear. It does so by managing to flesh out some intriguing characters (except for the stud, who remains only flesh — and lots of it), so you can actually end up giving a hoot about them.
The action takes place in a quaint old farmhouse in Durang's own home base, Bucks County, Pa. Vanya and his sister Sonia grew up and still reside in that home, leading dreary, loveless lives while their rich movie star sister, Masha, flits through projects, countries and husbands.
Since their names — "Our cross to bear," Vanya says — were chosen by their late parents from Chekhov plays, it's only fitting that these three survivors also bear varying burdens of guilt, gloom, jealousy, anxiety, disappointment and aimlessness. Chekhov would have felt right at home.
When Masha rushes in for a visit, with her way-younger boy toy, Spike, in tow, the whole house seems to shake from the unaccustomed energy.
Things get tense pretty quickly, especially when Spike, as is his wont, strips down to his underwear. This is the last thing the repressed Sonia and semi-closeted Vanya need to see, but those two soon have much more to worry about, just as their maid foretold — when you have a maid named Cassandra, you have to expect awful prophesies on a regular basis.
It turns out that Masha has new plans for the house, which she has long been responsible for financially, and this could spell big trouble for Vanya and Sonia. But first, there's a costume party to attend. A costume party? Why not?
It all makes a certain sense in this odd little world, where "10 or 11 cherry trees" on the grounds makes an orchard, in Sonia's view, and where an elusive blue heron is as good as a seagull any day.
If you brush up on your Chekhov, you'll get an extra kick from all the allusions thrown around in this play, but it's really not necessary. Just go with Durang's ever-so-slightly absurd flow. (A sample exchange — Sonia: "I can't remember the Italian for window or ceiling." Vanya: "Window is 'finestra'; ceiling is 'soffitto.' Sonia: "That doesn't sound familiar. I don't think I know Italian.")
The Center Stage presentation is a co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre featuring the director, Eric Rosen, and three of the actors involved in that company's recent staging of the piece. Rosen draws vibrant work from everyone in the cast here and keeps things moving along on Donald Eastman's warmly evocative set.
Barbara Walsh conveys the woeful countenance of Sonia ("I haven't lived") so tellingly that the character's eventual sparks of assertiveness and optimism have extra impact. Walsh is especially effective during those scenes in which Sonia channels Maggie Smith.
As vain, vulnerable Masha, Susan Rome gives a delicious portrayal (she reminds me of Wendie Malick playing Victoria Chase, another self-absorbed actress of a certain age and multiple marriages, on TV's "Hot in Cleveland"). Rome's performance is ripe with nuance throughout.
The schlumpy Vanya (does anyone else wear a nightshirt these days?) makes a good assignment for Bruce Randolph Nelson, who taps into the guy's state of contented discontent.
Nelson, who never met a rant he couldn't relish, is more than ready for Vanya's Act 2 outburst about things past — postage stamps that require licking, Bishop Sheen and Senor Wences (younger folks will have to Google them), etc.
That nostalgic litany is directed at the happily unsophisticated Spike, played with easy charm and abs that go on for days by Zachary Andrews. (I hope Calvin Klein is slipping a little something to Center Stage for the boxer-brief product placement.)
Kerry Warren takes the role of the combustible Cassandra and nearly walks off with the show. She is hilarious, spotting omens, spouting references to Greek tragedy and even sticking pins in a voodoo doll.
Deftly rounding out the cast is Emily Peterson as the star-struck Nina, who wanders into this menagerie from a neighboring house, dispensing kinder, gentler thoughts as she goes.
The play takes aim at all sorts of things, including climate change (a brief nod to an environmental message delivered in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya"), and stops at nothing for a laugh (there's even something of Helen Keller joke).
It's quite a funny, zany ride. And when all is said, shouted and sighed, it turns out to be kind of sweet, too. Chekhov wouldn't have seen that coming.
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" runs through May 25.