‘Vanya and Sonia…’: terrific ensemble work in Durang hit

sonia2Zany and grounded are not usually attributes to be found in the same stage production, but director Maxwell Williams pulls off that feat in the wonderful Hartford Stage season closer, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

The comedy about real estate, family jealousy, thwarted dreams and Hollywood fantasy finally scored a hit for Christopher Durang on Broadway last year after a brilliant career filled with near-misses or off Broadway hits that were just a tad too bizarre for mainstream acceptance.

Durang has been responsible for some of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen — starting with “A History of the American Film” in 1977 — but the sometimes patchy construction of the plays and a willingness to go a tad too far for a shocked laugh has made his work especially challenging for directors and actors. The odd chemistry between Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Collins in the original off Broadway production of “Beyond Therapy” sparked non-stop hilarity, but the Broadway production a year later, with Dianne Wiest and John Lithgow, was inexplicably dead on arrival.

I had a few reservations about “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” when I saw the original New York production in 2012 that I now realize were performance-related. On paper, longtime Durang muse and collaborator Sigourney Weaver was perfectly cast in the role of a movie star who returns home to Bucks County, Pa. to sell the family home out from under her two grown siblings, but she played the part too hatefully to be sonia1funny. Durang has fun with the vain, clueless Masha but, Weaver’s apparent distaste for the character got in the way of the laughter.

In Hartford, Leslie Hendrix is both more real in the part and funnier, and she meshes with the terrific ensemble Williams has assembled. Weaver was so busy trying to separate herself from the movie star she was playing that she became more ghastly than amusing. Perhaps because she isn’t a movie star, Hendrix is able to immerse herself in Masha’s egomania and she turns what could be a caricature into a hilarious character.

Mark Nelson as Vanya and Caryn West as (adopted) sister Sonia get the production off to a rollicking start with their bickering over the daily rituals that have been driving the siblings both a little crazy. Vanya’s decision to get his own morning coffee sets off Sonia, who hysterically claims this chore as one of the things she most looks forward to each day.

In a few minutes’ time, Nelson and West lay out the boredom and bickering that comes from Vanya and Sonia living with each other long past the time when it was appropriate. But, it’s the comic truth of the situation that makes it so funny and sets up the torrent of painful complications that come down on the heads of this brother and sister.

David Gregory scores some of the biggest laughs in the production with his work as Masha’s boy toy, Spike, who in the Hollywood manner, is up for almost anything that might advance his career or fuel his narcissism. The actor shows off a rather awesome body — Spike is eager to display his wares and to turn on whatever woman or man might be watching him — but the muscles become a part of Gregory’s comic arsenal. We get a chance to see the difference between Spike the bi-flirt and Spike the actor when the young man reprises his almost-successful audition for “Entourage 2” and we realize that he has a shot at a Channing Tatum-style success in Tinsel Town.

Williams frames the action with a witty Jeff Cowie set (a combination of Bucks County realism and fairytale fantasy cottage), perfect costuming by Tricia Barsamian, and another example of the great mood setting John Gromada can achieve with his ace sound design and original music.

(“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is running through June 22 at Hartford Stage. For performance and ticket information visit www.hartfordstage.org)