Until I saw Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” Wednesday at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, I never quite knew why Anton Chekhov’s plays get billed as comedies.
All those Russians moping about lost estates and futile pursuits struck me as pathetic or irritating, rather than amusing. But when Durang turned into them into Americans and turned their self-pity up a notch, they suddenly became absurdly funny.
He doesn’t have Chekhov’s intellectual rigor: After a paroxysm of wish-fulfillment near the end of Act 2, the play veers toward an emotional Candyland where all get what they want or deserve. But he sustains their mixed moods of ennui and angst long enough before that to earn our goodwill.
Calm Vanya (Dennis Delamar) and lugubrious Sonia (Jill Bloede) lead useless lives in the Pennsylvania house where they cared for their dead parents. Once-popular actress Masha (Josephine Hall) pays the bills and stays far away, until she comes home for a long weekend with Spike (Brandon James), a lover young enough to be her son.
He preens for Nina, a cheerful neighbor (Actor’s Theatre newcomer Anna Kelly), but she ignores him. The sixth character, a voodoo-practicing housekeeper with second sight, would be an awkward racial stereotype if Ericka Ross didn’t have such fun with her.
Durang took the three Russian names from faintly ridiculous characters in Chekhov’s plays. Vanya and Sonia are the stultified, weary uncle and eternally optimistic niece in “Uncle Vanya;” Masha is the short-tempered, plain-spoken middle sister in “Three Sisters,” whose adulterous affair ends in sadness.
In his book “The Actor’s Freedom,” scholar Michael Goldman describes Chekhov’s characters as “sad clowns, redeemed only by being fully felt as people, and not the comic icons they are always threatening to become – failed shamans, whose magic does not work, though it has cost them everything to perform.”
Durang doesn’t aim nearly that high. He takes simple shots at Spike’s generation in Vanya’s rambling monologue about the happy shared American vision of 1950s boyhood. (Happy and shared if you were straight, white and male, anyway.) Durang takes a few sideswipes at anti-gay bigots, but he mostly schmoozes the audience: Characters have sudden changes of heart and mellow quickly.
In fact, the Tony that “Vanya” won for best play last year seems like a lifetime achievement award for Durang, who had written plays for 40 years and never won that prize. It’s an old man’s work – he was 63 when it opened, 19 years older than Chekhov when he died – and the sharp sting of Durang’s early work has been blunted.
Director Chip Decker, who also designed the set and sound, has cast cleverly. Delamar and Bloede play to their strengths; Kelly and Ross embody sweetness and sass.
James, often seen as grim characters (“Flyin’ West,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”), proves he can also be goofy. Hall, the morose daughter in “Other Desert Cities” last year at Actor’s Theatre, makes a startling transformation to become flighty Masha.
In fact, all six might find apt roles in “Uncle Vanya,” if anyone in town ever decided to do Chekhov. Now I’m ready to try him again.