Avid theatergoers will recognize the characters’ of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike existential dilemmas (and their names) from the plays of Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright who, around the turn of the 20th century, revolutionized playwriting with his four major works: Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and The Three Sisters.
Known for their introspective, frustrated characters, Chekhov’s plays took place primarily in Russian country homes. The occupants of these estates blamed their ennui on lack of opportunity or their own poor choices—the lives they long for seem within reach, yet their ambitions can never be realized. Critics of Chekhov berate his characters for their passivity, suggesting the plays are long strings of dreary complaints; fans of the dramatist find humor in his characters’ languor, recognizing the absurdity of the human desire to long for more and of any attempt to make sense of life’s biggest questions.
Left to right: Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Masha (Mary Beth Fisher) and Vanya (Ross Lehman) in the 2015 Goodman production of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Durang’s Vanya shares some characteristics with the title character of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a man who has spent his life toiling on his brother-in-law’s estate. He also echoes Sorin from The Seagull, who never found love or pursued his desire to write, and Konstantin, a similarly thwarted—albeit younger—artist from the same play. Durang’s Sonia resembles Varya from The Cherry Orchard, who manages her family’s estate in between bouts of crying. She also shares her name with Sonya, a character from Uncle Vanya who bemoans her homeliness and pines for a romantic relationship. Further similarities can also be found between Sonia and The Seagull’s Nina, who in despair compares herself to a dead seagull—Sonia makes the similar declaration that she is a wild turkey.
Durang’s Masha most closely resembles Chekhov’s Madame Arkadina, the self absorbed actress from The Seagull who refuses to acknowledge she is no longer youthful and feeds her self-delusion by dating a younger man. Finally, Nina, the ingenuous neighbor, parallels Chekhov’s character of the same name from The Seagull. Both Ninas chase fame and glamour, cheerfully unaware that these attributes, if attained, might prove hollow.
For spice, Durang adds two distinctly non-Chekhovian characters. Spike, Masha’s boyfriend, possesses not only a contemporary name, but also a contemporary demeanor: he resembles one of the many charmingly ambitious hunks found in the pages of People magazine. Cassandra, who works as Vanya and Sonia’s housekeeper, springs not from Russian theater history, but from Greek tragedy and mythology. Like her mythical counterpart, she foretells the future, but others rarely heed her cautionary outbursts. Instead, Vanya tells Cassandra, after she delivers a portentous monologue warning of impending doom, to “please just say ‘Good morning’” when she arrives at the house. Cassandra’s Greek grandiosity overwhelms Vanya’s more quiet sensibilities, and this stylistic mismatch adds to the play’s humor.