By Bruce Miller
One of the things I enjoy most about my job is picking the season. It’s not a solo endeavor; it’s a team sport. The opinions of those who have to build the sets and cast the actors and balance the budget and sell the tickets all matter. But ultimately the responsibility is mine.
One of the shows I picked for this season is Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the brilliant and hilarious new comedy by Christopher Durang that opens in our November Theatre on April 24. Eighteen months ago, it was probably the first show to be nailed down on our season.
The title first entered my consciousness when my buddies Tom and Carlene Bass called me in a joyful frenzy a couple years ago to say, “We just saw this show and you’ve got to do it in Richmond.” A month or so later my wife and I ventured to NYC to check it out. Immediately it won our hearts. And then it won the Tony.
I’m far from the only artistic director to have rushed to apply for the rights. I haven’t checked the statistics, but it would not surprise me to learn that Vanya et al is the most popular title gracing the stages of America’s regional theatres this season.
At our weekly marketing meeting, the question is invariably asked. “Why did you pick this one?” The corollary question being, “How do we sell this title that no one’s ever heard of to a Richmond audience that is likely to read it and have zero clue why they should care?”
That’s always a hard question to answer. “Because I thought it was really, really funny” doesn’t cut it. Simple answers like that only prompt additional questions from enquiring coworkers who want to know. “What was funny about it?” “Why is it relevant?” “How is it different and unique?” “Where’s the hook for our audience?” and… and… and…
Driving to a meeting at Willow Lawn yesterday I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR. The show was just wrapping up, and David Bianculli was finishing his rave review of the new season of Louis starring Louis C.K.
Suddenly his review gave me a new perspective on the answer I want to give to the questions about why I’ve fallen so in love with Vanya and his cohort.
Here’s part of the transcript of yesterday’s broadcast, beginning with Bianculli’s narrative.
“BIANCULLI: Louis C.K., like Jack Benny and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, can make a simple trip to the store a very memorable experience. Here’s Louie venting his displeasure to a young salesclerk who didn’t want to bother unlocking a display of expensive cookware for him because the shop was about the close. Clara Wong plays the clerk, and I love this scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, LOUIE)
LOUIS C.K.: (As Louie) So you just don’t care about your customers.
CLARA WONG: (As salesclerk) That whole customer’s always right approach is kind of old school.
C.K.: (As Louie) Oh, is it? Oh, OK then – then – then noted. Thank you very much. In the future, I will take my business elsewhere.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Please do. Please go to Williams-Sonoma. They’ll be very indulgent.
C.K.: (As Louie) Wow. Wow, that’s a new approach. So you have nothing to learn from thousands of years of human commerce, just nothing. I really hope that works out for you.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Well, I’m 24, and I own my own store in Manhattan.
C.K.: (As Louie) All right then. All right. I will alert my entire generation that your generation needs nothing from us. We will just be on our way.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Well, if you could help clean up the environment you ruined on your way out…
C.K.: (As Louie) Oh, is there anything else we can get for you, your majesties?
WONG: (As salesclerk) Do you always get uncomfortable around younger people?
C.K.: (As Louie) (pause) Yeah. I don’t know – I don’t know why.
WONG: (As salesclerk) I think I maybe know why.
C.K.: (As Louie) OK.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Because we’re the future and you don’t belong in it because we’re beyond you. And, naturally, that makes you feel kind of bad. You have this deep down feeling that you don’t matter anymore.
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, that’s – that’s – that’s pretty true, yeah.
BIANCULLI: In that scene, Louie is deliberately addressing the new generation gap. Louie nails it perfectly in a few short minutes.”
Wow, I thought after hearing that clip. Wow. (Sounding like Louis C.K. himself.) That clip may nail the way I feel every now and then when encountering “the new generation gap.” But it doesn’t “nail” the response. My buddy Vanya nails the response.
You see, the wonderful, hip, funny Louis C.K. is 47 years old, and apparently this is the way he (and David Bianculli?) feel when encountering the jeunes gens toujours modernes who are now emerging in positions of authority. Perhaps, being only 47, he feels inclined to accept passively and go all introspective when encountering the “indignities” superimposed by these upstarts on their aging comrades.
Not so Christopher Durang, the author of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Durang is 67 years old. He passed beyond “passive” and “introspective” years ago. When the eponymous Spike begins to twitter and text and gyrate and generally cast disrespect on the “old school” life that Vanya embodies, Durang eventually goes nuclear. He writes for Vanya one of those speeches that so many of us wish we could have given—an Act II tirade that hilariously demands respect and honor for every cultural icon that those of us with sufficient gray on our heads hold dear.
I, for one, can’t help loving a play that values the future, present and past equally. A play that rejects the notions of “old school” and “new school” and insists that life is simply a school, neither old nor new, into which all of us matriculate at birth, from which none of us will graduate until death, and in which all of us must continue to learn. A play that embraces the joy of the journey and does so with wit and wisdom. A play that, in the words of The New York Times, fills the theatre with “booming gusts of laughter that practically shake the seats.” A play where the deus in the ex machina in none other than Dame Maggie Smith.
Lest all of this, or the Chekhovian monikers listed in the title, make the play sound too serious in its intent or pious in its delivery, be assured that Durang’s writing style has far less to do with wisdom that wackiness. Just as he has for the entirety of his distinguished career as a playwright, Durang finds his ultimate joy in making us laugh. If we pick up a few pointers along the way, let’s just count those as a bonus.