PROVIDENCE — Christopher Durang, the onetime enfant terrible of the American theater, has apparently mellowed, or at least he mellowed long enough to write “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ a Chekhov-inspired family comedy whose spirits are as gentle as they are high.
This is not entirely a good thing. Its Tony Award for best play notwithstanding, this broad and scattershot study of middle-aged ennui lacks the satiric bite that would make it really top-drawer, much less the fangs that drew blood in such ferociously subversive early Durang works as “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.’’
But even defanged Durang proves to have its rollicking pleasures in the New England premiere of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’’ at Trinity Repertory Company, directed with finesse by Curt Columbus and highlighted by Phyllis Kay’s performance as Masha, a vain and self-involved movie star. Meagerly plotted though “Vanya’’ is, the laughs flow freely and consistently.
Kay’s comic dexterity is a treat to behold from the moment Masha sweeps grandly into the family farmhouse she owns, along with her boy-toy, Spike (an animated and limber Mark Larson), to whom she also seems to think she holds proprietary title. Spike is an aspiring actor — his proudest boast is that he once nearly landed a role on a supposed “Entourage’’ spinoff — who spends part of the play clad only in underwear and sneakers, showing off his ripped torso.
After years of paying the bills from afar, Masha intends to sell the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, house (beautifully designed by Michael McGarty). This comes as devastating news to her siblings, Vanya, portrayed by Brian McEleney, and Sonia, played by Janice Duclos, who have spent years in the home caring for their ailing parents, now dead. But they shouldn’t really have been surprised, the home sale having been predicted by their housekeeper, Cassandra (Tangela Large, quite funny), who claims to possess psychic powers. Then again, Vanya and Sonia don’t know what to make of Cassandra, given as she is to dire and inscrutable prophecies like “Beware of Hootie Pie!’’
In any case, it’s not as if Vanya and Sonia were exactly in a chipper mood before Masha arrived. Sad-sack Sonia is prone to that most Chekhovian activity — wallowing in disappointment and regret over her wasted life while not doing much to change it. (“Oh, darling, sensitive, tedious Sonia,’’ Masha says to her.) McEleney plays Vanya with a radiantly beatific expression, but the character is also feeling thwarted, lugging around some unrealized dreams. Even the glamorous Masha is battling an undertow of disappointment at how her life has turned out.
A costume party offers an opportunity for all three siblings to set aside their woes for a time. Will they awaken to the possibilities of existence? Will Masha really sell the house out from under her siblings? And why is Hootie Pie someone to beware of?
Allusions to Chekhov plays abound. Sonia keeps declaring that “I am a wild turkey,’’ insisting that the 10 or 11 cherry trees out back constitute, yes, a cherry orchard, and even goes so far at one point to declaim: “I’m in mourning for my life.’’ When Duclos is later called upon to do a Maggie Smith impression (from “California Suite’’), it’s only so-so, but the actress plucks the heartstrings in a telephone scene where Sonia tentatively embraces the chance for a less lonely life.
Like Konstantin in “The Seagull,’’ Vanya has written an experimental play, which he unveils for the others at the prompting of Nina (Sylvia Kates), a young neighbor with acting ambitions of her own. Yet Vanya has no truck with modernity. Late in Act 2 this mild fellow erupts into a full-fledged nutty, delivering a cri de coeur in which he laments the loss of innocence and sincerity in pop culture and inveighs against technological change.
On opening night, the tirade prompted applause inside the Dowling Theater, as it also did on Broadway, where David Hyde Pierce originated the role of Vanya. But Vanya’s speech registers as a generic grab bag of crotchets and complaints that feels like a play for the allegiance of the gray-haired theater audience.
Still, the aura surrounding “Vanya’’ is ultimately a warm and forgiving one. For all the angst onstage, it’s a strangely uplifting show (and just in time for the holidays, too). Who’d have predicted that from Christopher Durang, of all people? Not to mention Chekhov.