Playwrights need actors.
Some, like Noel Coward, who was a performer first, or Charles Busch, who wrote to create breaks he does not believe directors would offer, manage to brighten page and stage, but for the most part, writers are better providing words for characters while actors portray them.
Christopher Durang has a quick comic mind and good sense of theatrical construction, but he does himself and his Tony-winning work, “Vanya and Sonia and Marsha and Spike,” a disservice by crossing the footlights to play Vanya in the Bucks County Playhouse’s current production.
Durang wrote the lines in the play, but he sometimes struggles to remember them.
He must know where every ounce of comedy and pathos is, but he does not have the actor’s timing or gift of expression to convey it. Even with a sequence that becomes a major aria for Vanya, tired of disrespect, bad manners, and a world and younger generation that dismays him, Durang’s words impress deeply while his recitation takes away from their strength, substance, and power. The BCP audience applauded Durang’s efforts upon the conclusion of the passage, but the response was more for the sentiments of Vanya’s speech than for Durang’s delivery of it.
Durang makes you listen and care, but he does not move you the way a more seasoned actor might. He does not endow Vanya with emotional depth or show the full extent of the character’s anger or surrender of the tolerance and peacemaking traits he has displayed before his outburst.
As with “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in general, Durang triumphs as a writer but is too pale, soft, and uncommitted in his approach to make Vanya’s best moments and lines register as an actor.
Yes, Durang, who has made Bucks County his home, has experience as a performer, and it seemed a neat coup when BCP engaged him to star in his own play, one that takes place in Bucks County. But Durang is not equipped to handle the material he produced, especially when working opposite the subtler and cannier Deirdre Madigan (Sonia) and Marilu Henner (Masha), whose diction, line delivery, character development, and ease on stage he cannot match.
“Vanya, etc.” plays more slowly and less hilariously because Durang does not get the most of jokes he created. It is almost as if he does not understand the humor behind them. The sad fact is he does not know how to wrap his tongue around them or pace them in a way that makes them play solidly and fully.
Durang’s performance is far from a disaster, but it interrupts the rhythm of director Sheryl Kaller’s production by not keeping up with the volleys, or polish, Madigan, Henner, Mahira Kakkar (a psychic housekeeper), and Clea Alsip (a young neighbor) set in motion.
You see the difference in a second-act scene in which Madigan and Henner are leveling with each other. The actresses create an atmosphere. There is dramatic tension in the room. Their session ends with Vanya entering the room to find them crying. Durang does not know how to play the surprise or manage the commiseration that completes the scene.
Another example is Madigan’s aria in the form of a telephone call with an unexpected suitor who thought she was charming at a party in which she spent the evening imitating Maggie Smith.
Madigan makes you hold your breath and worry about Sonia’s array of reactions to the call. She simultaneously breaks your heart and cheers your spirit. She is Chekhovian in a way that celebrates Durang’s intentions as a writer and gives his play texture and human warmth.
Henner clearly personifies the sibling who never feels understood and feels bad every time she visits her family. She can generate laughs and warnings of emotional torrents to come with a withering look, ironic expression, or authoritative claim to rule the New Hope roost that shelters Vanya and Sonia.
Kakkar is amusing as she goes into a near trance and delivers prophecies in the manner of a Greek chorus. Alsip shows an appealing blend of intelligence and naivety as an aspiring actress who admires Masha, an internationally famous film star.
Jimmy Mason fulfills all of the physical requirements of the bulked-up and ripped Spike. He is not as successful at showing why anything but his physique would appeal to Masha, as Mason overdoes Spike’s egotism, vanity, and dimness and becomes more of a caricature than a character.
Filled with literary references from Chekhov and other sources, laced with great jokes and set-ups, clever in storytelling and character psychology, and astute enough to perceptively depict rampant dysfunction in a New Hope family that can be miserable, cultured, depressed, and witty at once, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a worthwhile piece that plays well but can’t muster total potency in Kaller’s staging.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, August 10, Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. , Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3 p.m. $25 to $69.50. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.