“Happy families are all alike,” wrote Tolstoy. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But it’s another gloomy Russian — Anton Chekhov — whose characters and stories color Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning farce, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” running at Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre through Oct. 7.
This uniquely unhappy family consists of Vanya and Sonia, middle-aged siblings who still share a Bucks County country home years after surrendering a good part of their adult lives to be caretakers for their now-deceased parents. Now, alone and jobless, they subsist on regrets and petty grievances, financially supported by their sister Masha, an internationally famous actress.
MST’s artistic director Chris O’Connor solidly plays the glum, closeted Vanya, while Barbara Pitts shines as his woe-is-me adopted sister Sonia, who feels life has passed her by. Their lives of quiet desperation erupt into chaos when Masha (a delightfully imperious Annie McAdams) — who, despite her success, remains best known for a series of cheesy psycho-slasher horror flicks — returns home. She is accompanied by Spike, a hunky boy-toy (played by the very likable — and ripped — Jonah Robinson) who frequently is clad only in underwear.
The cast also includes Vanya and Sonia’s flamboyant Haitian housekeeper (the over-the-top Andrea Bellamore), who speaks in classical verse and can predict the future; her name, natch, is Cassandra. When a young wannabe actress (a wide-eyed and delightful Annette Hammond) wanders into the action from next door and catches Spike’s wandering eye, any reader of “The Seagull” will know that her name is Nina.
But you don’t need a background in Chekhov to enjoy “Vanya …” Apparently, though, Hobokenites still read the classics, since lines about a nearby cherry orchard or Nina’s decision to call her new acquaintance “Uncle Vanya” earned hearty laughs from the opening night audience. In fact, the crowd (and I) laughed throughout the play, thanks to Durang’s sharp-witted dialogue and a talented cast that never misses a beat.
The comedy can be broad — like Cassandra’s melodramatic monologues interpreting messages from ancient Greek gods, or Spike’s steamy “reverse striptease” — or it can be dry and brittle, from Masha’s Hollywood airs to Sonia’s unrelenting self-pity. But you will laugh — a lot.
Director Mark Cirnigliaro paces each bit of dialogue and stage business perfectly to wring maximum guffaws, chuckles and grins out of the material. Cassandra, Masha and Spike’s larger-than-life personalities balance nicely with O’Connor’s and McAdams’ understated performances and Vanya and Sonia.
What passes for a plot concerns Masha returning to the family home to announce that she’s no longer going to foot all the bills: She plans to sell the house, leaving Vanya and Sonia fretting about their future.
Masha is also there to attend a costume party at a nearby mansion filled with rich and talented people like herself, the sort of soirée where the pedestrian Vanya and Sonia would never fit in. But Masha, who comes equipped with a fabulously démodé Snow White costume, has “graciously” had her personal assistant whip up costumes for her siblings, too — as Grumpy and Dopey from the Seven Dwarfs — and this incites even more family resentments.
Sonia asserts herself and creates her own costume, as Maggie Smith from “California Suite” (a reference that will almost surely go over the heads of anyone in the audience under 60). Surprisingly, she finds untapped reserves of charm and outshines Masha at the party, sparking even more simmering resentment. (Nina, bless her naïve little heart, happily winds up in the Dopey costume.)
Just as the party reawakens Sonia’s belief in herself, the event (and Nina’s callow enthusiasm about life) inspires Vanya to announce that he’s written an experimental play, inspired by the character Konstantin in Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” In the second act (far less successful or funny than the first), he and Nina stage a reading.
But Vanya’s play goes off the rails when dull-witted and self-obsessed Spike tweets and emails on his phone during the performance, inspiring a long monologue from Vanya about changing American culture and how he misses the past. Durang wrings out a couple of laughs here: Spike thinks it’s raunchy when Vanya remembers “licking the mail,” talking about postage stamps. But mostly, Vanya raves and rants about ’50s culture (Ozzie and Harriet, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” rotary dial phones) that he couldn’t possibly have experienced himself (since the character, in his 50s, would have been born in the late ’60s.)
For young audiences — and there was a surprising number of teenagers in the audience — this won’t matter much, since young people think all oldsters are equally ancient. But the anachronisms rankled me.
Still, I heartily recommend this production, a perfect fit for the Mile Square Theatre’s intimate and inviting environs. After all, it was Chekhov himself who wrote, “People who lead a lonely existence always have something on their minds that they are eager to talk about.” The lonely people in this play — Vanya and Sonia and, in her own way, Masha — certainly do. And what they have to say will entertain as well as enlighten.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” will run Wednesdays through Sundays at the Mile Square Theatre, 1400 Clinton St., Hoboken, through Oct. 7. For tickets and more information, visit milesquaretheatre.org.
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