by Brenda W. Clough
There is a song format, ‘call and response’. You hear it most often in gospel or religious music, when the singers almost converse, exhorting or admonishing each other verse by verse or line by line. Well, many of the arts are like that. We talk to each other, over the ages, over time and space, novel answering epic, painting speaking to sculpture. Ph.D theses are made, of tracing how conventions in sculpting drapery were invented by the Greeks and handed east, until you can see a Buddha on a temple frieze in India with folds of cloth like Athena’s. Alan Garner wrote The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as an answer to J.R.R. Tolkien. Philip Pullman wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy as an answer to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books. And I wrote How Like A God because DC Comics had done an aggravatingly wrong reboot of Superman, and the only way I could show why it was wrong was to write a novel.
Playwrights, as you would expect, like to talk to other playwrights. And Christopher Durang turned his long love of the works of Anton Chekhov into Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. The thing is full of hat tips to other dramatists, as if author Christopher Durang was trying to pack them all in. He even managed Aeschylus. This makes for a pleasant in-on-the-joke feeling that won the play many awards, including the Tony and the Drama Desk awards.
There are the plenteous nods to popular culture, Snow White and the Beatles and Entourage and cell phones. And each actor (there are but five) gets a moment to strut and fret on the stage, a lengthy monologue or a major moment. It is as if all the mechanics, the dramatic and actory requirements, were foremost in the writer’s mind. And this is not quite right. The story, always and forever, should come first.
If you scout around and look at reviews and discussion of this work you will be assured that you don’t really have to have seen The Cherry Orchard or The Three Sisters to understand Vanya and Sonya. But I am not so sure. To me this work feels slight, not the best play Durang has ever written. It is amusing but not deep, if you know what I mean — not one for the ages. In this play the playwright was hitting a bunt, and when I go to the theater I want a clout for a home run.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.