Berkeley Rep season opener brings Chekhov-inspired comedy to West Coast

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In Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Anton Chekhov meets Walt Disney in this over-the-top comedy that takes place in the rustic Pennsylvanian home of two single 50-something siblings. When their self-absorbed Hollywood actress sister comes gallivanting back into the picture with her very young and often naked new boy toy, the three must come to terms with the dull and shallow lives they have led as their midlife crises ensue.

The original production first opened off-Broadway at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre not even a year ago and transferred to the Great White Way just this March. At the 67th Annual Tony Awards, it was nominated in six major categories and took home the pre-eminent “Best Play” award. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is the season opener for Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s current season — making it the first official production to open on the West Coast and outside off-Broadway and Broadway.

Middle-aged Vanya (Anthony Fusco), a closeted gay man, lives with his slightly offbeat adopted younger sister Sonia (Sharon Lockwood) in the countryside home where they grew up in rural Bucks County, Penn. The two have been manning the homestead for as long as they can remember, staying behind to care for their elderly parents when they contracted Alzheimer’s, while their other sister, Masha (Lorri Holt) went off to Hollywood to pursue her dreams.

All three were named by their professor-slash-community-theater-actor parents after characters from Anton Chekhov’s plays. Fifteen years have fluttered by since their parents’ passing — Vanya and Sonia are both now in their 50s — jobless, single and trapped in mundane, unfulfilling lives. To pass the time, they nag one another, quarrel and bird-watch. Cassandra (Heather Alicia Sims), their housekeeper with prophetic powers, serves as the main source of entertainment in the household — constantly spewing prophecies of calamity to the siblings.

Enter the pretentious and narcissistic Masha, the final sibling of the Chekhov bunch and fading movie star, who finances the house and its upkeep. Her new assistant, the unseen Hootie Pie, claims that the family home is a major financial burden and insists on selling it. With her new 20-something, wannabe actor boyfriend, Spike (Mark Junek) in tow, Masha waltzes back into the house in standard diva style — stirring up trouble along the way. Masha thinks of herself as a great classic actress, though she seems to only find herself being cast as a nymphomaniac serial killer in a series of movies. Spike, on the other hand, is her youthful, attention-craving boyfriend with a wandering eye and an obsession with parkour.

The final character in the play is Nina (Caroline Kaplan) — a young, aspiring actress and die-hard Masha fan visiting her relatives who live next door. She shares the name of the ingenue from Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” who torments declining actress Irina, and quite characteristically carries the same effect on Masha by catching the eye of Spike.

Packed with copious Chekhov references in both the dialogue, structure and themes of the story, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” also alludes to Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” the Beatles, Paul Simon, Maggie Smith, “Entourage”, Greek tragedies and so forth.

While the production is filled with plenty of striking, comical moments — such as when Spike takes the order of doing a “reverse strip-tease” quite literally or when Sonia outshines Masha at a costume party when dressed as the Evil Queen from “Snow White” as played by Maggie Smith on the way to the Oscars — the characters are seemingly far too outrageous and the play entertaining only on the surface level. For those who are unfamiliar with Chekhov’s literature, many parts of the work will seem utterly nonsensical — such as the bizarre reading of Vanya’s play written about molecules. The end product, with its lack of insightful depth, sadly plays out similarly to a bad sitcom.