Playwright: Christopher Durang. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800; www.GoodmanTheatre.org; $25-$86. Runs through: July 26
The three step-siblings are petty aristocrats with a lovely country house, some land and enough money so they don't have to work. Middle-aged, unmarried and lonely, they regret roads not taken. They are self-absorbed but also keenly self-aware, rueful but also comical. They have too much time with little to do. They pine for the past and fear the future, especially as the money is running out and the family estatewith its little cherry grovemay be sold.
Theatre cognoscenti will recognize these characters instantly as creations of the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, a seminal architect of modern theater. But this Vanya ( Ross Lehman ), Sonia ( Janet Ulrich Brooks ) and Masha ( Mary Beth Fisher ) are contemporary Americans in upscale Bucks County, PA and slightly embarrassed by their Chekhovian names. The happenings at the family manse are more absurd than Chekhov would allow, with a devoted housekeeper ( E. Faye Butler ) who practices voodoo. This could only be the work of absurdist writer Christopher Durang, who's struck gold with the most commercial success of his 40-year career. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike ( VSMS ) is drop-dead funny and brilliantly performed by a sure-fire cast under director Steve Scott.
So who's Spike? Well, Spike ( Jordan Brown ) is an extreme variation on a Chekhov character, too, transformed into a Hollywood boytoy for Masha, the one sibling with a career as a successful-but-now-aging movie star. And there's Nina ( Rebecca Buller ) as well, the neighbor girl in awe of Masha and perhaps the character most true to Chekhov. But, really, you need not know a jot about Chekhov to enjoy this play. If it has a weakness, it's that it becomes more like a sitcom as it progresses through Act II, with a happy ending that's both predictable and audience-pleasing. This is new for Durang, whose earlier plays have a darker, rougher comic edge, are filled with literary satire and chronicle the destruction of the nuclear family and/or criticize traditional religion ( Durang was raised Catholic ). It's kinder, gentler Durang even if the family is typically dysfunctional.
VSMS is a good-looking show. You'll want to move into the airy luxe country house setting by Charlie Corcoran, warmly lit by Robert Perry. Amy Clark's costumes generally are fun, especially Spike'sbecause he doesn't wear very much! The performances are past-perfect: Brooks as a bundle of neurotic insecurities, Fisher as her fiercely competitive sister, Butler pumping out the juju in a gaudy, funny turn and Lehman whose brilliantly-understated work provides the bedrock for the others. Buller has the least to do but is entirely engaging doing it. Finally, there's hyper-enthused Brown as wide-eyed, self-absorbed but totally unaware Spike, who's vapidity has no limits. VSMS is a summer show to relish.