Theatre Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Broadway)

vanya

What do you do with a problem like Masha? That seems to be the question on everyone’s lips, including Masha (Sigourney Weaver) herself – after all, it’s not every day that a world-renowned egotistical actress named after a Chekhov character about to enter her fifth marriage confronts long-standing rivalries with similarly named siblings and their emotion-laden homestead.

The show is hilarious, even if you know nothing about Chekhov. The titular siblings’ parents knew plenty, however, and named each child (even downtrodden adoptee Sonia (Kristine Nielsen)) after their favourite roles of the Russian playwright, and inserting those three personalities into an idyllic Virginia lakefront cottage to bounce off one another is inspired. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) rounds out the trio in a quiet, understated role that gets incredible laughs out of minuscule twitches in body language and nuance of inflection.

The crux of the show lies in how each sibling comes to reverse course on key character traits, and my favourite structural element of the writing is how virtually every member of the cast has an extended, measured-in-minutes chance to own the stage. Everyone has the chops to deliver, too; Weaver comes on as a force of nature, railroading Nielsen’s Sonia and barely remembering that her brother is gay. By the end, she has softened, calling out her vacuous fiancé and forging genuine conversations with those who matter to her most.

Many will point to Vanya’s rant against progress as the standout moment of the show, and they wouldn’t be wrong to do so – Pierce delivers a pained, frustrated, long-brewing filibuster that truly sells all of Vanya’s decades of self-restraint, and it is a joy to watch. My favourite, however, was Sonia’s monologue. Alone on the stage, as isolated as she tends to feel, she receives a phone call. A guest at the party she attended the prior evening (a party where she upstaged über-controlling Masha for the first time ever) has called her to ask for a date. Her first date. Sitting quietly in her chair and enduring the the throes of hope, despair, embarrassment and joy that one does in such circumstances, Nielsen’s presence fills the room.

The show’s weak points lie it the book; simply put, it’s a little over the top and too easy, too pat, by half. Psychic housekeeper Cassandra (Shalita Grant), with her posture-jolting premonitions, is never dull and always funny but a little one-note all the same. Spike (Billy Magnussen) never grows beyond his preening idiot schtick (though his reverse striptease managed to be both predictable and utterly relentlessness, which is an adjective I never thought I’d apply to a striptease). Young neighbour Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager) is sweet and encouraging because the plot requires her to be. Vanya, Sonia and Masha reach their resolution very easily, considering the baggage they start with, plus there’s the overt symbolism of a heron that may or may not land in the lake any given day. Could the heron represent their hope for a better tomorrow? It’s probably a Chekhov reference, but that doesn’t make it any less of a symbolic sledgehammer. Does the upbeat Beatles song, wonderful as it is, meaningfully represent the thematic peak? All of it is enjoyable, but it has a lightness that takes away from the emotional depth suggested at so many points.

While falling short of profound, V & S & M & S is enormously crowd-pleasing and it’s easy to see why it won the Tony for best play. Catch it before July 30 when Weaver leaves the cast.

4.5 out of 5 cherry orchards (well, cherry groves, at least)

~Mike!

Theatre Review: The Nance (Broadway)

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With Nathan Lane headlining a show, you may be forgiven for walking in with some unreasonably high expectations, especially post-Tonys where he was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in Leading Role in a Play. How nice then to have those expectations easily met.

The Nance is a clever, touching new play by Douglas Carter Beane, a period piece set in 1940s New York. Actually, clever doesn’t quite cover it; that implies a lot of wry smiles and knowing nods of the head among the audience. “Laugh-out-loud” comes closer, but implies that it’s essentially a comedy. How exactly does one peg a show that covers everything from romance to politics to burlesque to full-on belly laughs and, most importantly, depth of character across the cast?

We meet Lane’s Chauncey Miles at a local self-serve diner, where he briefly walks his latest prey through the ropes: young, down-and-out Ned (Jonny Orsini) has wandered by-mistake-but-really-on-purpose into one of those places where “boys like the boys,” it’s not uncommon to make surreptitious plans to meet up around the corner in half an hour, and everyone goes tense when a police siren enters earshot. How far we’ve come in 70 years. Chauncey leaves the diner for work, playing the titular nance for comic relief at a local burlesque house. He leaves work for home, picking up Ned along the way for what he assumes another in a long line of one-night stands.

The burlesque scenes are truly inspired, with a healthy dose of vaudevillian rapid-fire double-entendres (my favourite involved a later scene with Chauncey in drag as a prostitute named Hortence; cue the joke about how relaxed she looks). The stage is also a masterwork, a massive turntable with sets on each facing side. It’s used to best effect when turned on an angle, with most of the burlesque “backstage” facing the audience for dialogue between characters while a hint of the “onstage” side remains visible, with secondary performers playing to the wings. There’s a continuous energy to this show that comes through staging and performance simultaneously.

Chauncey is also a bit of a stand-in for some one of today’s political curiosities: how can you be gay and Republican at the same time? For Chauncey, the answer is easy; neither party supports gays in that era, so he may as well go for the individualist do-it-yourself-ers who support business and enterprise. His blind faith that the crackdown on his livelihood is a temporary political stunt is tragic; surely a Republican would never close down an industry that employs thousands solely on moral grounds? Ned (who has moved in with him and joined the burlesque show) and his coworkers are excited about an impending sympathy strike among all the arts performers in the city. Chauncey is dismissive of their enthusiasm, a wet blanket over their belief that together they can make change.

Which isn’t to say that he is without courage or empathy. Amid the crackdowns and police raids, he insists on playing his effeminate nance, even to the point of courting investigation and arrest. He refuses to plead guilty, thinking his status as “one of them,” a Republican, will protect him. The chemistry between Lane and Orsini is undeniable, and the show’s laughs never overshadow its inherent tragedy. Also excellent is the burlesque show’s owner, Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), a rough and practical funny man who is politically savvy enough to be aghast at Chauncey’s decisions while wise enough not to take personal offense at them. His patter with Lane and Orsini on and off the stage-within-the-stage keeps the show moving at a good clip, never wasting a moment.

In the end, this is a show about how nothing is straightforward, faith is seldom rewarded, and people will be who they are to the end, no matter how bitter. We all know how the story proceeds (thank you Supreme Court of 2013), but The Nance takes us back to a harsher time for social justice and makes us ask: “What would I have done?”

4.5 out of 5 double entendres.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof (Stratford Festival)

stratfordYiddish humour is a tricky thing to pull off, whether you’re working with material as strong as the book for Fiddler or not. A great deal of this style’s power comes out of a place of sadness, of being a bit of a hapless outsider, and that sadness has to come through first. The humour comes out of the little asides you make in response to challenges, in the little ways our heroes cope through jokes.

If I have one chief complaint with Stratford’s staging of the classic musical, it’s that the jokes come first. Tevye (Scott Wentworth) nails the vocal lilt, almost a verbal shrug, that’s probably the Yiddish accent’s most famous attribute in English, but it’s strangely empty without a world-weariness to drive it. Which isn’t to say his performance is bad; his key moments with wife Golde (Kate Hennig) and daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava (Jennifer Stewart, Jacquelyn French and Keely Hutton) are tender and loving, and he is a funny performer. But when the heart and soul of a show like this acts like he knows he’s funny, well… it loses something.

That about sums up this production in its entirety. With appropriately rustic stage dressing and costumes and solid performers, you’re guaranteed a Fiddler that gets the job done. The play has its own energy and hear that come through even the most rote performance. Take Motel, the tailor boy who marries Tzeitel and breaks with the tradition that Tevye extolls in the opening number. His nerves and awkwardness come across, but his big number lacks vocal power and physical largesse; he is just a small, stationary man on a big stage.

Thinking back on this production, one number stands out as everything they got wrong: Tevye’s “If I Were A Rich Man.” If you’re going to knock one song out of the park, make it this one. Its simultaneous yearning for the impossible along with weary resignation that it will never be is the thematic undercurrent tying the entire play together. Its emotional core is an unreachable, rapturous joy so profound Tevye can’t put it into words. His “biddy-biddy byes” are a pure, flowing expression of complex emotion, an unintelligible prayer to God.

Wentworth delivers those lines as if each word is, well, a word. It’s as if he’s scatting along in a jazz number. He enunciates each syllable clearly, giving them equal lexical weight. It ruins the significance of the key part of the song that is key to the entire play. Add the fact that Wentworth is a fine singer but can’t quite fill the room with his voice, and critical people such as myself start to check their watches a little too often.

Fiddler on the Roof is a wonderful story that’s near impossible, I think, to get wildly wrong. What you can do, however, is a paint-by-numbers approach that suggests rather than communications the script’s greatness. Stratford put all the colours in the right place. Shame they didn’t go over the lines a bit.

2.5 out of 5 sewing machines.

~Mike!