Christopher Durang's embraceable comedy, "Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike," starts by running riffs on the well-known work of others, his favored mode for most of his career, and then sneaks in some emotional resonance.
You hardly see it coming, this sentimental frisson. Up to then, Mr. Durang has entertained us with comic irreverence and parody, all flitting by like brightly colored birds in an aviary of wit. But at some point you feel that froth goes only so far, and just about then (or perhaps a little after) the play grasps hold of something more substantial.
In this, Mr. Durang's 2013 Tony-winning comedy is surprisingly like its main inspiration, Chekhov's comic-tragic "Uncle Vanya" and "The Seagull." Chekhov has deepened Mr. Durang's wit-cracking and perhaps softened his anger, providing a way to express what might be natural in the latter career of an always-youthful playwright who we now discover is well into his 60s.
As in the archetypal Chekhov play, Mr. Durang's fictional family is rusticating in comfortable exile -- in this case, Bucks County, a plausible enough parallel to Chekhov's estates far from Moscow. Vanya and Sonia are about to be visited by their film star sister, Masha, accompanied by her young stud companion, the witless (but very funny) Spike -- equivalents to Chekhov's aged professor and his beautiful young wife.
As in "Uncle Vanya," this Vanya and Sonia sit around complaining that life has passed them by. Then Masha announces she may sell the Bucks County estate. (She supports Vanya and Sonia, a reverse of "Uncle Vanya," where their labor supports the professor.) So that's the plot: Will she sell the house, and what will Vanya and Sonia do? Oh, and there's a pretty young girl next door who helps Vanya put on his existential yawp of a playlet (this is straight from "The Seagull").
But Mr. Durang's play isn't about plot, it's about character and allusion. It allows him to joke and vent about the follies of modern life, culminating in Vanya's rambling comic tirade in Act 2 about contemporary life and his nostalgic longing for the cultural icons of his youth. An audience of the right age will have fun matching their own memories.
That shows Mr. Durang at his best, as a comic chronicler of societal debris and unraveling social behavior. It parallels the play's other great speech, the hapless Sonia's phone conversation with a possible date. The emotion here is melancholy, but the invention is bright, and it turns Sonia into a Vanya-like hero of resistance to the superficialities of the culture that has made Masha a star.
Eventually, even Masha is gathered into the arms of this newly hopeful family. Her conversion is abrupt, but the sentiments it creates are welcome.
Skilled director Tracy Brigden secured Mr. Durang's play with Sheila McKenna and Helena Ruoti already in mind for Sonia and Masha. To them she added Harry Bouvy (Vanya), Hayley Nielsen (Nina, the girl next door), Karl Glusman (Spike) and the extraordinary Amirah Vann (Cassandra). It's a lovely cast.
The surprise is Ms. Vann, a whirlwind of comic invention. She channels all those unhappy prophesiers of yore but with such demented, self-satisfied energy that she feels original, which may help explain why she stands out in a play made up of parodic bits and pieces.
Not that the rest don't make their characters their own. Ms. Ruoti sweeps on as the domineering Hollywood star, happily oblivious to everyone, then reveals her insecurities in a cartoon-like (literally) Snow White costume. Ms. McKenna is dour to perfection then sparkles in the Maggie Smith impersonation that sets her free.
Mr. Bouvy natters about as a hapless Vanya until he takes fire with that great tirade. Ms. Nielsen's Nina may be as doomed as her Chekhovian original, but she shines with such innocence that we put those thoughts aside. And the posturing Mr. Glusman takes delicious pleasure in his own vapidity.
Tony Ferrieri's lovely "farmhouse" tells you just how little you need fear for this odd family's future, and Susan Tsu's costumes are worth a barrelful of laughs on their own.
It isn't just Chekhov who hovers over "Vanya & Sonia." Bucks County has its own place in American literary history -- just the right distance from New York to serve as a favored retreat of literary folk from the Algonquin/New Yorker wits (Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart, S.J. Perelman and visitors like George S. Kaufman) to Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim.
That's the tradition that embraces Christopher Durang, who's graduated here from jokester and iconoclast to comedian of nostalgia. It's a comfortable role.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944.