The most vital elements of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are its digressions: one character’s uproarious extended imitation of a famous actress, another’s outraged diatribe about modern technology. The play, which runs at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Feb. 15, is a comedy about three siblings who find themselves spending a couple of days together. But the characters are all eccentric, and they seem most alive when allowed to indulge their strangest inclinations.
Written by Christopher Durang, “Vanya” debuted at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton in 2012 before moving to New York for successful runs on and off Broadway (and winning the 2013 Tony for Best Play). It’s the only non-musical in the Paper Mill’s current season, but a surefire crowd-pleaser, nevertheless. These characters are neurotic but the humor has a refreshingly madcap sensibility; imagine the Marx Brothers acting in a Woody Allen movie.
Vanya (Mark Nelson) and Sonia (Michele Pawk) are middle-aged siblings living together in the Bucks County, Pa., house where, for years, they nursed their elderly parents (now dead). Their sister Masha (Carolyn McCormick) — like them, named after a Chekhov character — is a movie star.
As if living out their own Chekhov play, Vanya and Sonia are stuck in a rut. Neither has any romantic prospects, and they can’t figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They don’t really have any motivation to get off their butts, either, since Masha started paying their bills so they could focus on their parents, and is still doing so.
Sonia: “I had a dream last night. I was 52 and unmarried.”
Vanya: “Were you dreaming in the documentary form?”
They bicker about the morning coffee. But you still feel the strong bond between them.
It turns out to be an eventful day in their non-eventful lives. Masha is making a rare visit with her much-younger boyfriend Spike (Philippe Bowgen), an airheaded stud looking for any excuse to strip to his underwear.
Masha’s presence gives Sonia an opportunity to vent her petty, long-festering resentments. And Masha gives in to her jealous streak when Spike develops a friendship with young, innocent neighbor Nina (Jamie Ann Romero) and Sonia becomes the unlikely star of the party they’re all invited to. And is Spike really flirting with the gay but closeted Vanya?
Meanwhile, the housekeeper Cassandra (Gina Daniels) theatrically offers chilling — but not, we eventually learn, totally off-base — prophecies to anyone who will listen.
And what about poor, dignified Vanya? Well, Vanya seems like the calm voice of reason for the longest time. Until he, too, suddenly explodes, for the unlikeliest of reasons.
The set is gorgeous: All the action takes place in the morning room of the picturesque house where Vanya and Sonia live, and you see some of the surrounding grass and trees and bushes, as well as the interior of the room.
The acting is sturdy. Pawk in particular has the difficult task of making you feel sympathy for a character who, in many ways, is not all that sympathetic, and rises to the challenge.
The play’s ending is not completely satisfying. It resolves everything a little too tidily and cheerfully for characters who have so many rough edges. But you’ll laugh a lot before then. And you’ll learn to love these characters, too, despite their conspicuous flaws.
The play runs through Feb. 15.