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Review: Christopher Durang's Chekhovian comedy 'Vanya and Sonia' will make you cry till you laugh

Review: Christopher Durang's Chekhovian comedy 'Vanya and Sonia' will make you cry till you laugh
Jenna Cole, left, Lorena Martinez, Tim Bagley and Jose Moreno Brooks in South Coast Repertory's production. (Debora Robinson / SCR)

The feeling that life is passing us by begins early and intensifies with the years. It’s psychological terrain that Chekhov captured with particular compassion. If you ever find yourself moaning, “I’ve wasted my life,” you need just turn to his plays for a nod of understanding from Irina or Uncle Vanya.

Christopher Durang took a crack at the theme in his 2012 comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” in which despair nips at a Chekhov-like trio of middle-aged siblings. Southern California first saw the play in a terrifically funny and tender staging at the Mark Taper Forum in 2014 that featured key players from the 2013 best-play Tony-winning Broadway production. The script is now in all-new hands at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, where director Bart DeLorenzo is in charge on the company’s smaller stage.

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This is a tricky play to get right, partly due to the stealthy difference in tone between the script’s first and second halves, and partly due to the need for a cast with a deep roster of comic talent. SCR’s production for the most part succeeds. Still, it’s possible to leave feeling not quite satisfied — which is a very Chekhovian sensation, but probably not what the company intends.

In his more than four decades of writing, Durang has demonstrated a singular gift for taking something silly, improbable or outright absurd and making it resonate — in such plays as “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” “Beyond Therapy” and “Laughing Wild.”

This quality extends to “Vanya et al.,” with the added delight that the tale is festooned with theater references that reach back to the Greeks and progress through “The Miracle Worker” to “California Suite.”

The siblings’ Chekhovian names are attributed to the proclivities of their now-deceased parents, professors who also were active in theater. Vanya and his adopted sister, Sonia, in their 50s, have never really gotten out into the world. They still live in the family home in rural Bucks County, Pa.

Scenic designer Keith Mitchell makes the house cozy, decorating its sitting room and sunroom with stained-glass panels, quilts and folk-art accents. And for a few fleeting moments, life here seems quite pleasant indeed. In the pastel of morning — by lighting designer Karyn D. Lawrence — Vanya (Tim Bagley) enters in a nightshirt cradling a mug of coffee and looking serene. Then Sonia (Jenna Cole) walks in — all frazzled hair and rumpled pajamas — and the day shatters as she plunges into a litany of missed opportunities and regrets.

The gloom intensifies with the arrival of their housekeeper, Cassandra (Svetlana Efremova), who is given to ominous premonitions, and a surprise visit by the third sibling, Masha (Pamela J. Gray), a film and TV actress who foots the bills, but is generally too self-absorbed to check in.

Masha works her siblings against each other while sighing dramatically about the rigors of her glamorous life. But soon, all three are still more obsessed about their lost youth, mostly because Masha has brought along a much too young lover, Spike (Jose Moreno Brooks), who strips in front of them for a dip in the pond. While he’s out, he meets and invites back Nina (Lorena Martinez), whose unforced beauty Masha takes as an affront.

The actors speak in a somewhat elevated manner — leaving pauses between lines — that calls to mind the old-fashioned approach to Chekhov that the household’s parents might once have taken at their community theater. It feels a bit stilted, but DeLorenzo and his actors otherwise spur the proceedings with funny line readings and comic bits.

Cole, a familiar presence from Pasadena’s A Noise Within, is especially riotous once Sonia turns into a live wire, a miracle that occurs as she heads off to a costume party in a glittery gown (costumes by Raquel Barreto), having appropriated Maggie Smith’s voice and mannerisms. And Brooks, forever in his skivvies, is a hoot as Spike bounds, lunges, performs push-ups and generally preens all over the place.

The play’s first half is easy to dismiss as Chekhov-lite, rattling through the Russian master’s themes as mere fodder for laughs. But after intermission, the story deepens in unexpected ways. What’s more, given the events of the last couple of years, the sentiments expressed in the second half seem appreciably more perceptive.

DeLorenzo — whose deft stagings include “Cymbeline” for A Noise Within, “Annapurna” for Evidence Room and “Doctor Cerberus” for SCR — proves a wily leader once again. As of the midway point in opening weekend, though, the zaniness hadn’t fully coalesced, and Bagley had not yet found enough emotional or vocal variety in his big Act 2 moment.

The wrap-up triggered plenty of feeling, though, leaving a couple of the actresses in tears, along with who knows how many of us in the audience.

And that might have impressed even Chekhov.

Pamela J. Gray, from left, Tim Bagley and Jenna Cole as the play's despairing siblings.
Pamela J. Gray, from left, Tim Bagley and Jenna Cole as the play's despairing siblings. (Debora Robinson / SCR)

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘Vanya and Sonia’

Where: Julianne Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and most Sundays; ends Oct. 21

Tickets: $31-$86

Info: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

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