“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” in its opening weekend at Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, starts with the works of Anton Chekhov and takes off on a wild ride.
Chekhov’s plays live on the line between comedy and tragedy, but there’s nothing tragic about “Vanya,” which received the 2013 Tony Award for best play and lots of praise from critics who loved its absurd mix of Chekhov, Greek tragedy and pop culture. (Walt Disney princess Snow White makes an appearance.)
Of the Broadway version, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood loved one key comic moment to which the audience reacted with “booming gusts of laughter that practically shake the seats.”
Harlequin’s first reading of the show, before a very small audience, drew loud laughter, too — and not just in one scene.
Isherwood summed the Broadway production this way: “I can imagine many satisfied patrons leave the theater muttering, ‘Now if only real Chekhov plays were this funny, maybe I wouldn’t keep falling asleep.’ ”
But Harlequin managing artistic director Scot Whitney was drawn to the show because it goes beyond comedy.
“I really like Christopher Durang’s writing,” said Whitney, who’s directing the play, “but I’ve never been compelled to do any of his plays.”
Among Durang’s previous efforts are “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You” and “Beyond Therapy.” He also appeared in a 1986 “Saturday Night Live” skit parodying the works of Bertolt Brecht.
“His plays leave you thinking: ‘That was really funny and what else? What am I taking home with me?’ ” Whitney said.
But when Seattle’s ACT Theatre did “Vanya” in 2014, the Harlequin director went to check it out.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I thought it was a wonderful story — so charming.”
The way the three (siblings) actually come together; it’s a fun ride, and it’s just a beautiful story.
Harlequin managing artistic director Scot Whitney
The play follows one weekend in the lives of three middle-age siblings, all named for Chekhov characters. (And yes, a younger character does take to calling Vanya “Uncle Vanya.”)
Vanya and Sonia have spent their lives living — or merely existing — in the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Masha, a movie actress, has been paying for it. She arrives for a visit (along with the very attractive and much younger Spike) and reveals that she wants to sell the place. The other characters are Nina, a young actress who calls to mind the character of the same name in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and a cleaning lady fittingly named Cassandra after the Greek oracle.
Regrets, complaints, tears (onstage) and laughter (offstage) ensue.
The cast includes Mari Nelson (Masha), who’s appeared in numerous Harlequin shows and on Broadway, and Bill Johns (Vanya), who got critical praise for his role in the company’s 2014 “Middletown.”
Also starring is Lisa Viertel, a Seattle actress new to the Harlequin stage. She came to Olympia for Harlequin’s auditions because she so wanted the role of Sonia, the sad sister who makes the most of the opportunity to be someone else for one evening.
“These characters are all miserable, and they all complain without listening to anybody else,” Whitney said. “The way the three actually come together; it’s a fun ride, and it’s just a beautiful story.”
Whitney and the critics agree that while those with a casual knowledge of Chekhov will catch a number of references to his work, it’s not necessary to know anything about the 19th-century Russian playwright to get most of the jokes.
What sets this apart from some of Durang’s work might be the ending.
“The ending is hopeful, or at least not dark,” the playwright told The New York Times in a 2014 interview. “I am not purposely trying to be commercial, but in my later years, the world seems so upsetting that I want the relief of something working out. You go out of the theater feeling a little relieved that the worst things didn’t happen to the characters.”
Or as Whitney put it: “This family has always been at odds and jealous. They are like little kids. There are petty conflicts.
“In the end, they grow up — and it’s about time.”
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
What: Harlequin Productions presents Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning comedy about three middle-age siblings confronting the realities of their lives — and one another.
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.
Tickets: $34, $31 for seniors and military, $20 for students and youth.
When: 8 p.m. Friday (Jan. 22) and Saturday plus Thursday-Jan. 30 and Feb. 4-6 and 11-13, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sunday, plus Jan. 31 and Feb. 7.
Note: The show includes some strong language and is recommended for teens and adults.