Solidly produced, competently directed, and boasting a host of expert comic performances, “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” begins Le Petit Theatre’s second season under its new leadership with a surefooted crowd-pleaser.
Christopher Durang’s Tony Award winning contemporary sendup of the plays of the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov is not a game-changer for The Little Theatre, but it does exactly what it is designed to do: deliver laughs with minimal fuss or challenge.
You won’t leave the theater transformed, but you will enjoy the time spent.
Detailing the declining fortunes of brother Vanya and sister Sonia, the comedy exists between absurdist humor and gentle character study. Set in a Pennsylvania country home over one weekend, “Vanya” is possibly Durang’s most accessible work, genuinely rooting for its characters unlike many of the playwright’s darker offerings.
The caustic bite usually delivered in comedies like “Laughing Wild” is replaced by a surprising sweetness. Even the egomaniacal movie-star sister Masha, who in Durang’s hands would normally be a monstrously destructive force, and her vapid boy toy Spike are treated as flawed but quite human characters.
With David Raphel’s bright and airy set framing a number of expertly played virtuoso moments, director Ron Gural’s production becomes the best fully realized show the theater has presented since it began its new incarnation.
The set up is pure Chekhov with its emphasis on the frustration of day-to-day life and nonstop references to such classics as “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Seagull” and “Three Sisters.”
After spending most of their adulthoods caring for their aging parents, Vanya and Sonia find themselves with no jobs and no prospects. Their already despairing situation is made worse when Masha returns home with threats to sell their childhood home and throw them out into the harsh world.
Add Idella Johnson’s clairvoyant housekeeper Cassandra, Sophie Amoss as enthusiastic aspiring actress Nina, and Jake Wynn-Wilson’s handstanding narcissist Spike, and you have roughly two hours of rising comical hysteria delivered with a silliness accentuated by Cecile Casey Covert’s realistically cartoonish costumes.
For the most part, the stakes and delivery are more than sufficient.
Susan Shumate and Martin Covert, as Sonia and Vanya, each have a tour-de-force moment to make us remember that sometimes, being funny is enough.
Playing a woman who has all but given up on romance, Shumate makes the most of a phone call from a potential suitor who might just prevent her from crossing the border into spinsterhood.
The performance’s comedy springs from the character’s nerves and arrested developmental rather than laughter at her expense.
And as the asexual Vanya, Covert has a doozy of monologue during the final scene’s play-within-the-play. Methodically grounded in genuine vexation, it will touch any that have been left bewitched, bothered and bewildered by this modern age. Guiding Covert through his paces, Gural brings the proceedings to a riotous climax.
But it’s Johnson who really casts a spell.
As the entity that prevents the piece from sliding into Chekhovian sadness, Johnson invokes the theatrical gods of long ago, bringing a life force into a room of sensitive souls.
All I can tell you is to wait for the words “Hootie Pie.”
It’s only Cassie Steck Worley that misses the mark a bit. She has a spot-on performance as the obliviously selfish Masha, but too often her eyes remained closed while talking to others on the stage, leaving the impression she was in a play of her own.
My biggest issue is less with the production and more with the theater’s mission up until now.
After a full season under their belts, the crew at Le Petit has yet to create a signature theatrical show that establishes an identity for the theater.
While Southern Rep deepens its relationship with Tennessee Williams, The NOLA Project carves out a niche for muscular, sprawling American drama and Rivertown hones its popular middlebrow offerings, Le Petit continues to flail in search an effort that boldly announces what we can expect from the theater in the coming years.
Maybe they’ll catch that magic with their next show, “Peter and The Starcatcher.” Or maybe we’ll have to continue to settle for the craftsmanlike pleasantries currently inhabiting their stage.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
WHERE: Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter St.
WHEN: Through Sept. 20
INFO: (504) 522-2081 or lepetittheatre.com