Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is LOL funny

Theatre Review/Des Moines Register

By Michael Morain, mmorain@dmreg.com

May 11, 2015

In StageWest’s bizarre show this week at the Des Moines Social Club, a pair of mopey, middle-aged siblings spend a lot of time watching wild turkeys from their sitting-room window. One morning their clairvoyant housekeeper shows up to shout prophecies over the roar of her vacuum and warns them about someone, or something, named Hootie Pie.

It’s hard to explain.

Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is goofy and scattered and clever and sweet. It’s a gentle little farce, a tale of regret and reinvention, directed with a light teasing touch by Jennifer Ross Nostrala.

But mostly it’s funny — even LOL funny, to use a term that would drive one of those siblings up the wall.

“I know older people always think the past was better, but really — instead of a text with all these lowercase letters and no punctuation, what about a nicely crafted letter, sent through the post office?” Vanya, 57, gripes in the show’s now-famous lament. “We used to lick postage stamps back then!”

Vanya, Sonia and Masha were named after Chekhov characters by their theater-loving parents, and they still seem to be living up or down to their namesake personalities, even well into adulthood.

The first two — Vanya (Jim Benda) and Sonia (Ann Woldt) — let their own lives pass by in order to care for their aging parents, who are now dead, while Masha (Arlene McAtee) flew off to become a Hollywood star. When she comes home with a hunk of man-candy named Spike (a smirking Zander Morales), the old sibling resentments resurface.

Add to the mix the vacuuming, voodoo-dabbling housekeeper (played by Andrea Markowski and the voices in her head) plus a starstruck neighbor (Emily Wohlers), and the story takes a few weird turns that Chekhov’s gloomy Russian aristocrats never would have imagined.

Viewers don’t need to know much about 19th-century Russia or mid-20th-century America to enjoy the show, although my boomer parents laughed at references I didn’t catch myself. (Google tells me Senor Wences was a Spanish ventriloquist on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Google also says he was popular, but I find this harder to believe.)

The script includes enough explainers for a broad audience, which is partly why it’s being performed so much this season across the country and why it won the Tony Award for best play in 2013. But there are too many pop-culture references to make it a show for the ages, which is why you should see it here and now, especially with this particular mix of local talent.

Benda and Woldt are both pathetically funny as pajama-clad creatures of routine, although Woldt draws the most laughs when she heads to a costume party dressed as an evil queen played by Maggie Smith. (I told you: It’s hard to explain.) Later, her over-the-phone monologue with a potential suitor adds a surprising note of hope amid all the silly banter.

McAtee is great, too, as the delusional movie star who sees herself as “the American Judi Dench” even though she built her career on a series about a murderous nymphomaniac. She usually speaks with her arms extended, as if addressing a throng of fans rather than her sad-sack siblings or six-pack Spike — who pulls focus, as they say, by parading around in his underwear. (Morales hasn’t eaten sugar or carbs since he landed the role three months ago.)

Other quick shout-outs go to costumer Doris Nash (for the costume-party outfits), scenic designer April Zingler (for the detailed house) and props designer Kelsi Tedesco (for the voodoo doll), whose collective contributions make the show at least look realistic even though the characters spout such nonsense. It’s serious business to stage the absurd.