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Book Report: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

I was approached by a very good local community-theater actress about the possibility of playing Vanya in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike sometime in the next year or two. I am fond of Christopher Durang’s writing, although now that I think about it not actually of his plays… I have read a few of the short pieces he mostly writes and I tend to admire them and find them somewhat amusing, but it has been a long time since any of his scripts inspired me to see it or act in it. Still, I’ve heard very good things about this one, and as I say I like his writing, and it is always flattering when people say there’s a great part in it for you. So I picked up the script and read it.

I don’t get it.

That is to say, there are a bunch of good jokes, and some clever references, and some very clever combinations of jokes and references, but as a whole play, I don’t really see the point of it. I don’t know why anyone would care about the three siblings who are the main characters. There is a plot, of sorts, but I don’t know why the audience would care much about it, even if it wasn’t structurally obvious how it would turn out. Not that plays need to rely on tenterhooking the audience to a big-reveal ending, but I should at least care whether the orchard is saved or not. I should feel some sort of sadness about the orchards putative destruction. In this play, enh.

Mostly (and I touched on this last spring but I guess haven’t ranted at greater length here) YHB is All Done with plays about the minor domestic squabbles of unpleasant and affluent white liberals. I just don’t care. It seems like such a waste of playwriting ability and production effort. I cannot, as kids these days probably don’t say, even. The orchard can burn, as far as I’m concerned, and probably should. The only vaguely interesting thing about the three siblings in the play is which of them should be the first one up against the wall when the revolution comes, and since it’s a pretty big wall, they won’t really need to decide. Actually, a play about a bunch of revolutionaries trying to decide in which order to put the affluent, unpleasant and liberal protagonists of recent domestic-squabble plays might be kind of interesting, at that.

I mean, of all such plays I have recently seen or read, I probably found this the most amusing. I was going to say the most amusing and the least irritating, but that’s not actually true… it’s both quite amusing and quite irritating, without ever quite emerging from being boring. Vanya (the character I was asked to look at) has a five-page monologue (I call it a monologue, which is a sort of shorthand, I suppose; it’s five pages during which there are four lines spoken by other characters and everything else is either Vanya’s lines or stage directions, which are pretty minimal, actually) during which he expresses a sense of loss for the world he grew up in, where people had to lick stamps and dial rotary phones, and where the TV was dull but everyone watched the same shows so it was a shared experience. And, I dunno, I have myself written about the importance of recognizing a sense of loss about things that aren’t worth saving, but I couldn’t help thinking that the shared experiences of which he speaks are the shared experiences of a person who doesn’t ever think about anyone who doesn’t share his experiences. Also, somehow, this fellow who is in his 50s now remembers television from more than 60 years ago, but that’s not the point—the point is that he is the kind of person who assumes that everyone watched Fulton Sheen on television. And, yes, there were only three channels, but there were in fact three channels, and only about half of the households in the country had a television at all (it is just about possible that the fellow is talking about having watched Howdy Doody at the very, very end, although he very clearly says Howdy Doody and then Kukla, Fran and Ollie, so really we’re talking about a kid who was born in 1940, right? Who even five years ago when Mr. Durang wrote the thing would have been 75. But this is nitpicking.) so the thing about the everybody that shared the experience of watching Fulton Sheen and Howdy Doody is that they were the everybody that was allowed to share their classrooms and could afford to live in the catchment area of their elementary school in Nockamixon, not the everybody that actually existed. And yes, it’s because I am myself only belatedly and dimly becoming aware that the shared experiences of my youth were not so shared as I thought they were—do you know that in the summer of 1980 there were millions of people in this fine country who (a) were not white folk and (2) had no interest in speculating about who shot JR? And that I went to school with some of them and presumably had no conversations with them at all, as we were tracked into different classes based on ability tests that had severe racial and cultural biases but which I thought were just disinterestedly stupid?

It’s possible, even likely I suppose, that Vanya is intended to have exactly that sort of blindness that I have walked around with for most of my life. That when he goes off on how the world used to be, the audience is supposed to simultaneously recognize themselves and think Christ, what an asshole, and it’s that tension that got the Tony nomination for David Hyde-Pierce. I didn’t get that impression from the script, though. The script felt smug, as if the natural superiority of the rich white unhappy jerks at the center of the play to the circumjacent yahoos was self-evident, and that the show could mock them, secure in the bond between them and the self-satisfied rich white jerks who buy tickets to the theater.

Does that seem harsh?

Yeah. That’s far more harsh than the play deserves. Still, if there is a point to the play that really makes it deserve better, I’m missing it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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