Thursday, July 24, 2014

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Guthrie

"We are agreed that a critic is not, and never will be, a member of the audience.  Not only is he paid to attend, he is paid to listen; and this sobering circumstance colors his whole attitude toward the material on stage.  The critic says: This is an extremely bad play--why is that?  The audience says:  This is an extremely bad play--why was I born?  There is a real difference."
- I Don't Want To See the Uncut Version of Anything by Jean Kerr
I am not a critic--not remotely. But I saw Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Guthrie last night and all I can say is, MAN, am I tired of seeing plays with white people yelling at each other.  Also, this is 2014, right?  Why is the only African-American actor in the cast playing the cleaning woman?  Also, Vanya and Sonia?  GET A JOB.

As usual, the Guthrie audience really enjoyed it (although not enough for the obligatory standing ovation), but that's not unusual.  I remember this getting fairly good reviews when it was on Broadway, starring Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen.  (How could you go wrong with that cast?)  Also, Christopher Durang won the Tony in 2013 for this play.  So is it just me?  Am I unreasonably crabby about theater featuring white people who should stop whining and get jobs? 

Let's go to the Internet and see!  (Isn't it nice that you can always find someone to agree with you online?)

Ben Brantley's 2012 review in the New York Times, Insecure Namesakes With a Gloomy Worldview, in which he praised the performances, had this to say:
"That means that for a couple of benignly stretched-out hours, Durang fans can watch a master of antic psycho-comedy play with Chekhov like a self-amusing cat toying with a tangled string. Notice I didn’t say mouse. Mr. Durang is not in the killing vein here." 
So if you like that kind of thing, there you go.

I'm not the only one whose racism radar was triggered by the character of cleaning woman Cassandra--played by Isabelle Monk O'Connor, who was just wonderful in Theater Latte Da's recent production of Our Town, and deserves better than this role.

I think Scribicide: A New York Theater Blog's post They Should Have Left Vanya and Sonia and Masha to Chekhov which reviews the 2012 production, gets it right, referring to Shalita Grant, who played the role of Cassandra on Broadway:
 "And Ms. Grant, who was a delight in the Pearl’s Philanderer, has possibly the play’s most difficult task, charming her way through an awkward, vaguely racist role. (Do we really need another gyrating, magical Black character whose only narrative purpose is to save white characters?)"
Answer?  No.  Scribicide also says:
"It is only fair to mention that on the night I attended the audience was positively roaring and constantly interrupting the actors with applause. The phrase, I suppose, is crowd-pleaser. The crowd was pleased. I was not."

Ours too!  And me too.

I found myself dissecting the humor--what the audience was laughing at, what they weren't, and in Threat Quality Press's post Christopher Durang and the Court of Cannibals, the author perfectly encapsulates my vague feeling while describing the scene where Sonia throws a coffee cup against the wall:
"...this is a textbook example of the kind of joke that doesn’t go anywhere: the playwright, noticing that his play is boring, has a character do something unexpected; realizing that “unexpected” isn’t the same thing as “a joke”, he has the characters react to each other in the hopes that they’ll eventually squeeze out a laugh."
Threat Quality Press, would you like to sum up?  You put it SO well:
"I just want to reiterate that this play, with its go-nowhere jokes, its leaden exposition, its racist caricatures, this play that is a self-confessed lump of vomit composed of half-eaten, better plays, this play that climaxes with five minutes of an old man yelling at a cloud, won the Tony Award for Outstanding New Play. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Production, the Drama League Award for Best Production of a Play, the Drama Desk Award for Best Play, the Outer Circle Critics Award for Best Play and the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play. It, along with Venus in Fur (by David Ives, America’s other favorite author of community theater audition monologues), is one of the most-produced non-musical plays in the country right now. This play is a pile of hot garbage, and the worst that reviewers in the New York Times, the LA Times, the Associated Press, et al have had to say about it is “Certain bits go on too long and the exposition could be lightened” (that’s Charles McNulty at the LA Times, in case you’re wondering)."
I only hope that the Guthrie production generates the kind of discussion that the New York production has.  Kind of makes me tempted to go to a talk-back, just to see the response.  But then I'd have to see it again, and it might make me throw a coffee cup at the wall.