Chekhov retooled for the boomer and Millennial generations in Goodman Theatre production

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Is Anton Chekhov rolling over in his grave in the Moscow cemetery where he was buried in 1904, at the age of 44? Or, having caught wind of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” is he doing somersaults in celebration of the way the playwright has retrofitted several of his best known plays (“Uncle Vanya,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Seagull”), and made them hipper and more obviously accessible (if far less subtle) to a 21st century American audience?

Difficult to know. As the play’s first act runs its course at the Goodman Theatre — where director Steve Scott has assembled a glitterati cast — there is every reason to think Chekhov, despite his subtly wicked sense of humor, might be less than amused by Durang’s overly broad contemporary parody of his three masterpieces. Yet by the time it’s all over, a sense of fervent homage emerges. And the many over-indulgences can be somewhat overlooked as the heart and soul of Chekhov somehow begin to find their way through the pop culture clatter.

‘VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE’

Recommended

When: Through Aug. 2

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $25 – $86

Info: (312) 443-3800; http://www.GoodmanTheatre.org

Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

If nothing else, you can forever hold on to Ross Lehman’s show-stopping rendering of a modern-day Vanya — a closeted, middle-aged man who delivers Durang’s brilliant, nostalgia-infused riff on the days when, among many other things, postage stamps had to be licked. And you can cheer for Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sonia, a middle-aged spinster at the breaking point, as she so nervously but winningly responds to an invitation for a first date.

To be sure, the more familiar you are with Chekhov the more fun you might have with Durang’s 2013 Tony Award-winning mash-up of a play — a work that also comes with a farcical touch of Greek tragedy (by way of Haiti) courtesy of E. Faye Butler’s prophetic housekeeper, Cassandra; a bow to Cruella De Vil by way of Mary Beth Fisher’s Masha, a fading, self-absorbed Hollywood diva; a nod to Calvin Klein underwear ads by way of Spike, Masha’s Chippendale-worthy boy toy, played by Jordan Brown; and the more realistic, theater-besotted earnestness of Rebecca Buller’s lovely Nina, the young aspiring actress who idolizes Masha.

Jordan Brown (from left), E. Faye Butler and Ross Lehman in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Jordan Brown (from left), E. Faye Butler and Ross Lehman in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

The whole thing unspools in a farmhouse-style home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Vanya, a failed intellectual, has spent his life, along with his adopted sister, Sonia, both of whom were named after Chekhov characters by their parents (professors with a passion for theater). It also is there, that for 15 years, the two cared for their ailing parents with financial support from Masha, the globe-trotting film and TV actress who has moved through five marriages.

When Masha unexpectedly drops in for a “visit,” accompanied by Spike, the dim-witted wannabe actor she has been “mentoring,” the tension among the siblings explodes. And Masha’s announcement that she plans to sell the house only exacerbates the situation.

Mary Beth Fisher (from left), Ross Lehman, Jordan Brown and Janet Ulrich Brooks in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Mary Beth Fisher (from left), Ross Lehman, Jordan Brown and Janet Ulrich Brooks in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

The play captures a clear sense of the enduring, universal afflictions of neurosis, narcissism, bitterness, envy, despair at failure, anguish over a wasted life and the fear of aging. And there is a strongly implied sense that Chekhov was never more “our contemporary” than in his warnings about environmental degradation, now framed by “climate change.”

What has changed, most noticeably, is that instead of the “God will provide” serf with a babushka found in Chekhov’s plays, we have Cassandra, a wildly irreverent cleaning lady with a penchant for voodoo and incantations. And Butler sticks pins in her voodoo doll with relish.

The question remains: Once Masha heads off again, will Vanya and Sonia continue on, enduring the unendurable, or will things change? To borrow a reference to Samuel Beckett from an early Durang play, it’s a good bet they will just continue to find themselves “laughing wild …. amid severest woe.”

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