Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: Misery Meets Company Meets Absurd Comedy at Phoenix's Herberger Theater

Two women are weeping. A man dressed as a Disney dwarf arrives with a tea tray. References to Chekhov are made. It's plain: We are watching a Christopher Durang play.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play. It is, in many ways, archetypal Durang: an absurdist comedy dense with literary and theater-world references, a happy story about deeply unhappy people.

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Set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, this is a longish two-act about a trio of siblings, two of whom are living in their family home after caring for their deceased parents, the other a movie star who's returning for a visit with a boy toy who's half her age. The movie star announces she is selling the family home, and so begins a delicious pair of hours of hand-wringing, pop culture references, and Chekhovian musings on the vanity of mankind.

The play is chockablock with these deliberate references to the writing of Anton Chekhov: the character names, the theme of a family losing its ancestral home, the references to a cherry orchard. But knowledge of Chekhov's dark themes isn't necessary to enjoy Vanya, which is primarily a smart, contemporary story about the human condition.

Director Joel Sass balances these contradictory styles with ease, and his dazzling cast is clearly having a blast bringing Durang's people to life. Suzanne Bouchard has the thorny chore of being an actress playing an actress who's actorly. She shines. Her Masha is always "on," even when she's not wailing or strutting or fretting that her young boyfriend is running off with someone more youthful, and a lesser actress might not have brought as much warmth to Masha as Bouchard does. Isabell Monk O'Connor whips up a gleeful storm as a voodoo-enthused housekeeper, but her quieter moments -- when she walks quickly through a scene, waggling a hat pin, or when she's watching Charles Janasz's marvelous, nearly eight-minute-long tirade about the death of humankind -- are her best. These three must share the stage with wonderful Suzanne Warmanen, whose Sonia is both infuriating and endearing and captures our hearts with a quavering voice and a yearning for life that's palpable.

Durang may be the only playwright who can sell the line "Fuck Hootie Pie!" (Although I saw it with a Sunday audience whose loudest laughter came for the phrase "Hummel figurine.") When one of his characters whines, in a post-apocalypse play-within-a-play, "I miss my self-pity!" we laugh because it's a funny thing to say, or because we recognize a Chekhovian allusion to pining for the past, or because we like Durang poking fun at his own fondness for other people's misery. Either way, we laugh. And that's the important thing.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues through Sunday, October 26, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Call 602-256-6899 or visit www.arizonatheatre.org.

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