Sarasota's Asolo Rep stages two worthy shows

A Durang comedy and a Baitz drama succeed in different ways

mclear@bradento.comJanuary 28, 2014 

From left, Peggy Roeder, Anne-Marie Cusson, and Andrew Sellon in Asolo Rep's production of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." Frank Atura/publicity photo

Asolo Repertory Theatre has had to adjust its season schedule to retool its production of Brian Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" So for the next couple of weeks the company has only two shows in rotating repertory in the Mertz Theatre instead of the usual three.

The two are very different, but both worthwhile.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is the latest comedy by Christopher Durang, and almost inarguably his best. Durang's best known for such wonderful works as "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" and "Beyond Therapy." But if he never writes another play, "Vanya" will be likely considered his masterpiece.

Like most Durang plays, it's hilarious. Unlike most of his plays, though, it's also poignant and full of heart and optimism.

The first three title characters are adult siblings, raised and still living in a Pennsylvania house by Chekhov-loving academics. Vanya and Sonia have a dreary existence, seldom leaving the house; Masha is a movie star who supports them.

The other characters are Spike, Masha's much-younger hunk of a boyfriend who has trouble keeping his clothes on in public; Cassandra, a sooth-saying housekeeper and Nina, a young and effervescent visitor.

There's a story line about a costume party, a play reading and Masha's threat to sell the family home, but it's inconsequential. Durang's script is essentially a character study, and it's smart and relentlessly hilarious, full of wry observations and sharp one-liners.

He delivers a modicum of the kind of social criticism he's known for, but in the second act he replaces it with a warmth that borders on sentimentality, and his play becomes almost poignant.

Just about everything's right with the Asolo Rep production, directed by Peter Amster. Peggy Roeder is a standout in an outstanding cast, playing the aging, mousy Sonia who finally blossoms in the second act. Asolo newcomers Andrew Sellon and Anne-Marie Cusson are hilarious and believable as Vanya and Masha, and Tori Grace Hines brings just the right amount of sunshine to the role of Nina.

There's a lovely set by Ray Klausen and some great sight-gags thanks to the costumes of Jennifer Caprio.

Amster's direction is lively and the comic timing is impeccable.

If you analyze Durang's play more closely than it's meant to be, you could quibble that the characters are inconsistently drawn and that the resolutions are but too tidy. But none of that will occur to you as you're watching it. Even if you see dozens of plays a year, Asolo Rep's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is likely to be the most enjoyable evening of theater you've experienced in a long time.

Riveting script propels 'Desert'

Jon Robin Baitz provides another phenomenal script in "Other Desert Cities." It also revolves around a fractured family, and also turns from wacky comedy and takes on a more serious tone.

But it's nothing like "Vanya." The family is Baitz' play has been wounded by ideological differences' the right-wing parents have raised left-wing children, including a long-dead son who was implemented in a politically motivated bombing. The family faces a crisis when the daughter writes a book that will expose family secrets.

It's riveting script, full of humor and some delicious plot developments, the kind that catch you by surprise but still develop gracefully from the story. The only real flaw with the script is a stupid tacked-on ending that's completely out of character with the rest of the play.

But the Asolo Rep production, directed by Greg Leaming, just isn't great.

Judy Gailen's set is striking to look at, but it's far too big. It's the living room of the parents' home, and it takes up almost all of the huge Asolo stage. It's a talky and intimate play, but because he has so much space to fill Leaming has his actors bouncing around the set randomly, like balls on a pool table. The movement looks self-conscious and awkward and it's a continual distraction.

The actors fare well in the early, comic moments of the play, but their performances become overwrought when the mood turns grayer. Only Carolyn Michel, as an alcoholic aunt who has the best perspective on the family dynamics, delivers a performance that's on-target all the way through.

Details: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" runs through April 13 and "Other Desert Cities" through Feb. 27 in the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are $55-$69. Call 941-351-8000 or go to www.asolorep.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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