This Hebrew Adaptation of an American Play Will Thrill Chekhov Aficionados

'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,' inspired by the Russian playwright, gets a moving rendition by the Haifa Municipal Theater and the Cameri Theater.

Gerard Alon

In “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a joint Haifa Municipal Theater and Cameri Theater production, Vanya is a gay bachelor of 57 who lives in his parents’ house – they named their children for characters in Chekhov plays – with Sonia, his adopted sister, a single woman of 52. Even though this play is set in contemporary America, Vanya and Sonia, like their namesakes in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” feel that life has passed them by. Masha, their successful actress sister, who finances their life in the country house, arrives for a visit, accompanied by a young hunk of a suitor. She’s thinking about selling the house (see “The Cherry Orchard”). A novice actress, the neighbors’ relative, Nina, as in “The Seagull,” also pops in for a visit. All the allusions are bared, sometimes to the point of parody: the house is on a lakeshore; Sonia says of herself, “I am a turkey,” (parodying the original Nina’s “I am a seagull”); and Vanya asks whether they will have to listen to Chekhov quotes all day.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (the latter named “Shpitz” in the Hebrew version), by the American playwright Christopher Durang, is about a disintegrating present-day family, with reference to Chekhov. What sets this splendid comic-tragic play apart is that it extracts the “Chekhovianism” from the label that has become attached to it. The point is that beyond the mannered style, Chekhov’s plays, like Durang’s wise work, are about the simplest and most complex things in life, the essential qualities of every human being: appreciation and self-recognition, loneliness, longing for love, jealousy, pain, sadness, despair and hope.

Chekhov aficionados will particularly enjoy this play, though they might miss some of its subtleties. Those who are not thrilled by the “Chekhov” label will take pleasure in a human, funny-sad drama, with plenty of material for the emotions and much to contemplate about the play and its characters, and about themselves and their lives.

The translation into Hebrew, by Rivka Meshulach, captures the flavor of the original. The director, Moshe Naor, cast the parts intelligently, instructed the actors well and made the necessary cuts in the Americana-steeped monologues, though happily resisting any temptation to replace them with “Israeliana.” Alexander Lisiansky designed a lovely, just-right set, and Ori Vidislavksy added vividly supportive music in the spirit of The Beatles.

The rest, as befits a Chekhov-inspired play, is in the hands of the actors, and they imbue it with life, with grief and with beauty. Dana Meinrath is a mirthful Nina at first, and captivating with her nave optimism at the end. Gal Amitai is blessed with a well-sculpted body that is essential for the part he plays, and also conveys a reclusive charm. The veteran Tiki Dayan breathes very amusing life into the character of the maid/witch Cassandra, though neither the author, the director nor she herself has decided whether the character should be taken seriously or not – just as well, too.

Of the three major parts, Rami Baruch draws well-earned applause at the end of his outburst in a monologue whose rage is petrifying, not to say frightening, compared to the soft character he portrays so well as Vanya. If I have a minor, very cautious cavil, it’s about Anat Waxman in the difficult role of the self-aware /not self-aware actress Masha. An impressive actress with rich experience in comic and dramatic roles alike, Waxman should allow herself to drop the need to demarcate the disparity between her and the character, and tone down her extroversion a little.

I find it especially fitting that Sonia is played by Odeya Koren, who was in the same acting class as Anat Waxman in the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts 30 years ago. Koren is a first-rate comic; this is one of the few times she has been cast in a mainly dramatic role. Her Sonia is a very special acting gem in a most pleasing and satisfying theatrical string.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a joint production of the Haifa Municipal Theater and the Tel Aviv-based Cameri Theater. The next performances: Haifa - November 13, 15-18; Tel Aviv - November 27-30.