Anton Chekhov plunges down the rabbit hole in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."
In its regional premiere at the Berkeley Rep, Christopher Durang's madcap fantasia on Russian themes is so over the top that it's inside out. Smartly directed by Richard E.T. White, this outrageous romp, which starred David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver on Broadway, is a hoot and half for those of us intimately familiar with the realm of cherry orchards, dying seagulls and three sisters.
The playwright, famed for his flair with farce from "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" to "Beyond Therapy," packs the uber-absurd plot with so many belly laughs that the wistfulness at the core of the high jinks is all the more poignant. If the Tony winner often feels overstuffed and the pacing hits a few snags, there's simply no way to resist this loopy mashup of everything from Pirandello and voodoo dolls to the Beatles.
Enter this tastefully appointed Pennsylvania country house (set design by Kent Dorsey) at your own peril. Long-suffering siblings, the grouchy Vanya (Anthony Fusco) and the whiny Sonia (the redoubtable Sharon Lockwood) have been maintaining the family manse for as long as they can remember. They grew up there, tended to their elderly parents there and now they are trapped there, seemingly forever.
They rely on their glamorous movie star sister Masha (a wry turn by Lorri Holt), an aging Hollywood icon, to pay the bills and on their prophesying housekeeper Cassandra (Heather Alicia Simms) to buff and polish their misgivings of doom. They feel they are languishing in the boondocks but are equally certain they couldn't survive the wilds of the big city, so they bicker, bird watch and bathe in a general sense of ennui meets midlife crisis.
Alas, when Masha comes traipsing in with her latest shiny new boytoy in tow (Mark Junek as the chiseled and frequently disrobed Spike), she forces them to confront the reality beyond their bucolic corner of the world. Masha, the ersatz Arkadina of the piece, has been swimming with the sharks in Hollywood, but she's come to the point in her life when all the good parts go to the pretty young things.
With no more action movie paychecks to cash, she wants to sell off the family estate and move on. Or at least pretend that she's not facing the same palpable fear of mortality as her brother and sister. Spike, whose dull enough to miss most barbs, does his best to distract her (and everyone else) with his impeccable pecs.
The ensuing nuclear family meltdown is triggered by a flurry of events including the arrival of the ultimate ingenue Nina (Caroline Kaplan), who swoons for Spike and makes Masha feel aged and act deranged, a dementedly funny reverse striptease and a surprisingly moving play-in-a-play riff on Konstantin's experimental piece from "The Seagull." While Durang would be even more hilarious if he reined himself in occasionally, there is enough spit-up funny stuff here to soothe us despite the unsettling heart of the piece.
In Fusco's hands, Vanya's sad tirade against the age of smartphones and selfies is a beautifully delivered study in longing and nostalgia. Lockwood, for the record, nearly steals the show with her painstakingly layered performance as the dour sister who gets her groove back after a particularly spectacular night of partying at the age of 52. When the brood attends a costume party dressed in a Snow White theme, the usually invisible Sonia chooses to go as "the Evil Queen as played by Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars." Well played, indeed.
The sincerity of Durang's fondness for his eccentric characters and the honesty of his discontent with the now lends the otherwise goofy plot a sense of gravity. Global warming, short attention spans and the tyranny of pop culture all come under fire as these quirky characters ponder what the future holds, not just for themselves, but for a civilization uncertain how to reinvent itself in the face of cataclysmic change.
Written by Christopher Durang
Through: Oct. 20
Where: Berkeley Rep, Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $10-$89 (subject to change); 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org