"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" was on Tracy Brigden's must-do list long before its Tony Award victory for best play. She read the script, envisioned the roles of Sonia and Masha for Pittsburgh actresses Sheila McKenna and Helena Ruoti and pursued the rights while it was on the verge of becoming a Broadway sensation.
Artistic director Brigden's persistence and a friendship with writer Christopher Durang -- he wrote "Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge" as a City Theatre commission -- won the day. The spirited comedy about three siblings and their symbiotic relationships, plus a psychic housekeeper, an ethereal neighbor and a wannabe actor named Spike, will open the City season.
The local production is one of a handful by regional companies nationwide since the play ended its Broadway run in August. The New York stars included Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce, Billy Magnussen and Durang muse Kristine Nielsen.
Ms. Brigden, sitting in her office at the South Side theater, points to a poster from City's "Mrs. Bob Cratchit," which starred Ms. Nielsen in the title role and featured Ms. McKenna in the cast.
"Yeah, it was kind of a no-brainer," she says. "We just really went after it because I knew how much our audiences would love it and that we had some great ladies -- I offered them both these roles without auditions because I picked the play for them."
For those familiar with Chekhov's works, the characters' names (Spike excluded) are a hint that the play has something to do with the work of the Russian playwright, and indeed Mr. Durang weaves themes and relationships from various plays into his comedy without leaving behind anyone unfamiliar with the likes of "Uncle Vanya," "The Cherry Orchard" or "The Seagull."
Chekhov aside, it's a wildly funny piece with juicy roles and empathy for its sharply drawn characters.
A quick set-up: Masha, star of a popular movie series, and her airhead boyfriend, the much younger and often shirtless Spike, descend on her family home in Bucks County for a rare visit. Masha's siblings, Vanya and Sonia, lead sheltered lives in the bucolic farmhouse where they cared for their ailing parents, with only a psychic housekeeper to break up their bickering but comfortable existence. Masha announces her intention to sell the house, and the siblings' reunion grows in tension and hilarity.
Time and distance have done nothing to mend fences that Vanya and Sonia and Masha are now facing head on.
"There's this terrific scene between the sisters where they each have definite points of view: 'You weren't here to take care of Mom and Dad' and I say, 'Yes, I know I wasn't here, because I had to be working to pay the bills.' She says it about seven times. So each of them has very distinct points of view, trying to get the other to see," Ms. Ruoti says. "There's this emotional thing between them that's hard to jump over and they have this back and forth, and I thought, 'Geez, he's really nailed this scene.' "
The character of Masha may seem like a caricature at first, "but we all know a few Mashas; they make entrances," says Ms. Ruoti, noting that however much time has passed between visits, relatives will pick up where they left off.
"The siblings are reduced to 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds. It's that kind of petulance," she said.
"We have all noted," Ms. McKenna jumps in, "those of us who have brothers and sisters as adults, we really revert to whatever age stamped your power struggles. We have to just go for that."
The actresses and their director know each other well from various projects at City and elsewhere -- Ms. McKenna will direct her co-star in a Quantum production in January. That familiarity and trust helps when you have to voice some wild imagining from the mind of Christopher Durang.
"To do this kind of comedy, you have to be fearless in rehearsal and make an idiot of yourself. When you are among people you know who aren't going to judge you for your idiocy, it's easier to go out on a limb," Ms. Brigden says.
"You've got to be bad for it to be good," Ms. Ruoti says.
The actors have the cushion of knowing the director will let them know how far out on the limb is too far.
"I'll say to Tracy, 'Too much?' And she'll say ...," at this, Ms. Ruoti holds her thumb and forefinger a little bit apart. "Tracy has a marvelous way of getting right to it, like a surgeon. But always with such a sense of humor and affection about it."
Toward the end of the play, Vanya (Harry Bouvy) breaks from his usual calm and delivers a monologue full of pop culture references. In a New York Magazine interview, the writer said it came from his thoughts about watching "The Ed Sullivan Show" as a kid, where he was exposed to the Beatles and Broadway and classical music. It's emotional and it's a mouthful, and Ms. McKenna says it's "a marvel" that two weeks into rehearsals, Mr. Bouvy is off-script.
The cast also includes City newcomers Karl Glusman as Spike and Amirah Vann as Cassandra, plus Hayley Nielsen (last season's "Little Gem") as Nina. There's no sense of intimidation for the younger actors making their City debuts -- even for Mr. Glusman, who has to constantly show off his gym-ready abs.
"It's really nice because whoever is waiting to come on stage next, they are watching their fellow actors do their scene and laughing -- true, honest supportive laughter," the director says.
"Another thing that makes this cast so particularly perfect is they are all strong dramatic actors. This play, most out of [Mr. Durang's] work that I know, has some real truth and depth and even some kind of sadness in a very Chekhovian way. So these guys can handle all that and be really funny as well."
Mr. Durang's comedies tend to take absurdity to new heights, but here, the Chekhovian conceit seems to have pulled him toward reality -- although each character takes a walk or two on the outlandish side. When it's decided that the siblings will attend a neighbor's costume party, Masha goes for head-to-toe Snow White regalia out of Disney's 1937 animated film -- a costume unrecognizable to the younger characters around her.
The sibling who undergoes the most change, start to finish, is Sonia. Ms. McKenna's talent with dialect was one reason she was an obvious choice for the role, which requires her to assume the speech patterns of a well-known actress (no spoilers here).
It's a challenge she relishes.
"It's nice to explore in a physical way the blossoming that happens for her, where in the first few scenes, there's this melancholy," Ms. McKenna said. "I like that there's potential. [At the start], I throw things, I weep uncontrollably, I sigh tremendously. I'm just a Debbie downer for the first half of the play, and it's just delightful to get to indulge that already melancholy streak I have ... and then bust out of it in a big way."
"For Masha," Ms. Ruoti says, "the corollary for that would be, she comes in very grand and is the queen of denial all throughout, and then her siblings bring her down to earth. They create an equilibrium along the way, and she realizes that [whispers] there's no place like home."
City Theatre is known for developing and commissioning new plays, but "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is one relative newcomer that arrives fully realized and with the nice touch of "Tony-winning" in front of the title.
"It's a good kickoff," Ms. Brigden acknowledges. "It's nice because the play is finished. I've been on the phone or emailing with Christopher and asking some questions, and he is coming out to see it, but we don't have to work on the text, which is a nice break occasionally from what we often have to do at City Theatre. So the play at the end of the season, 'Hope and Gravity,' which will be a world premiere, this gives us a little more time to get that all the way into shape."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM