Thursday, April 17, 2014

"In The Presence Of A Professional"

Read this in Latin.  It’ll sound loftier, possibly worth chiseling on the side of a building.

“How wonderful it is to be in the hands of a professional.”

“Que maxima fortuna esse in…manos de pro…”  I can’t do it.  There was a burst of inspirational energy, then…flopperama.

Anyway, that’s how I felt attending a recent L.A. performance of Christopher Durang’s New York Critic Circle’s winner for Best Play of 2013, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Imagine a pilot coming on the intercom, and reassuring you into forgetting that you are in an airplane 38,000 feet off the ground and there is nothing holding the thing up.  That’s Christopher Durang in this theatrical counterpart. 

The guy really knows what he’s doing.  (And you can feel it.)

I can easily imagine the title Vanya and Sonia and Masha (and then the humorously incongruous) Spike being the title of a sitcom episode.  So I am already at home.  And I am just reading the program.

In a letter inviting him to read his new play and consider playing the lead role (which he eventually did), Mr. Durang explains to actor David Hyde Pierce that, concerning the ambience of the play, “I like to say the play takes Chekhovian characters and themes and puts them in a blender.”

And so he does.  Lifting names and moods from Chekhov plays and appropriating elements for his most rudimentary plot – which can be briefly summarized as “Someone decides to sell a house and then later decides not to.”  (Not really a “spoiler” because the plot’s not that important.  The First Act of Vanya, etc. is fifty pages long, and the announcement about selling the house does not arrive until Page 48.  So even the playwright apparently had better things to do with his time than wallow in the circuitous intricacies of a real estate transaction.)

And those “better things” are to thoroughly and delightfully entertain.  There is some peripheral message concerning “What really matters” and an extended rant about “The Good Old Days”, but the primary intention of the play is like…well, imagine it’s a blusteringly rainy day outside and an amusing friend comes to the house and distracts you from the inclemency by providing a hilariously excellent time. 

(The “deeper” incarnation of this effect is that good comedy, momentarily at least, helps us forget that we are all going to die.  You see what I did there?  I did the opposite, making an enjoyable moment sad.  Which may go some ways to explain my limited commercial success outside of free television.)

As I said, the plot is a trifle.  “Woe” and then “Whoa!” – they change their mind.  This rudimentary “plot-lite” allows more time for the playwright to have fun.

Durang’s type of fun – at least in this play, I am not familiar with his others – is to create – and this is my favorite style of comedy – a proclivity amongst the characters of uninhibited self-awareness. 

What do I mean by that?  A character does a joke, and it’s acknowledged as a joke.  A character takes a shot, and it’s responded to as a shot.  A character behaves mean, and they confess to being mean.  For me, this refreshing “Wonderful World of Candor” enhances rather than detracts from the hilarity.

I can’t tell you how many shows – even good shows – I wrote where the characters never acknowledged anything.  Characters were unrealistically dense, characters appeared immune to the insults hurled at them, and rarely on those shows did anyone laugh at anything any other character had just said. 

It was as if there was some unwritten “Sitcom Rule” decreeing that, “The only people who should know what the characters are saying and doing is funny is the audience.”   

This, to me, is not normal.  And, like the contrived joke constructions I have alluded to elsewhere, it contradicts the stated intention of making the show we were delivering feel “real.”

Examples of employing startlingly candid but responded-to exchanges in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike abound.  (It occurs to me that our current manner of communication has become so antiseptically offense–free that you can now get an enormous laugh simply by saying what you might naturally have said if you were not being congenitally polite.) 

Not that it’s Virginia Woolf.  Durang employs a style in which his characters take their shot, and then quickly assuage the sting by immediately “copping” to their ego-damaging lacerations.  (Having it deliciously both ways in the process.)

The three central characters are a sixty-ish conciliatory-to-a-fault “Vanya”, his terminally depressed, slightly younger stepsister Sonia, who both live out their drab and empty lives in a small country house paid for by their narcissistic, aging movie star sister/stepsister “Masha”, who has come for a surprise visit, accompanied by Masha’s lightweight, youthful and extremely handsome new boyfriend “Spike” (the only name not lifted from Chekhov, although admittedly no “Chekhov Expert”, I could possibly be wrong about that.)

Not to give away all the best lines – and I couldn’t if I wanted to because there are literally dozens of them – a sample offering:

VANYA:  I must say, I always admired you for doing your duty and taking care of our elderly parents, even though you were adopted.  You put Masha to shame, in my opinion.

SONIA:  Thank you.  I appreciate that.

VANYA:  Of course she had a successful acting career, and you basically didn’t have anything else to do.

SONIA:  Well, a moment ago you gave me a lovely compliment.  And now…oh let’s not talk.  I’ll keep my sadness to myself.
Masha arrives, greeting her brother and her stepsister.

MASHA:  Sweetest Vanya, dearest Sonia.  How I’ve missed you.  You both look the same.  Older.  Sadder.  But the same.
A sweet, young aspiring actress “Nina” is introduced to the proceedings.  Nina, although innocent, has also been gifted by the playwright with a knowing awareness.

SONIA:  Hello, Nina.  I have the feeling no one is going to introduce me, I’m kind of like furniture in the room rather than a person.  But I’m Sonia, Masha’s sister.  Although I’m adopted and don’t really belong here.  Or anywhere.  And this is my brother Vanya.

NINA:  How lovely to meet you.  And what a funny joke about the furniture.  

Later in the play, in an observation about the egotistical “Spike”:

NINA:  He’s so attractive.  Except for his personality, of course.
Less funny, though stylistically consistent, is a moment when Masha reverses herself concerning denying Nina the right to attend a costume party on the grounds that her selected costume is embarrassingly unacceptable:

MASHA:  No, no, Nina.  I’m not saying you can’t go to the party.  I’m so sorry.  I’m really being a bully, but when you’re my age – whatever that age is – you get used to having your way.  I’m monstrous, but lovable monstrous, I hope.

After this apology, Masha goes on to require Nina to attend the party dressed in a humiliatingly oversized “Dopey” (of the Seven Dwarfs) costume.
My single quibble involves Vanya’s climactic rant concerning how things were better in the fifties – although he disclaimingly includes, “The fifties were idiotic but I miss parts of them.”  The thing is, Vanya’s cultural references – Howdy Doody, Ozzie and Harriet – are chronologically too young for the character’s age. 

Nobody seemed to care about that, including me when I was laughing, so my criticism may be less serious than the product of envy towards a guy who has written a hit show.  This does not invalidate my point, it simply explains my feeling the need to offer it.  (You see?  I’m just like the play.  I attack, and then explain why I did it.  No wonder I enjoyed it so much.)

Christopher Durang performs with the confident hand of a consummate professional.  And from where I sit, that’s exceedingly close to as good as it gets.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I haven't seen this play but I've read some others of Durang's plays and always enjoyed them (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You being the title I remember!)

I'll have to hope it comes to London.


L. Sid said...

Thank you for not doing the entire post in Latin.