For the Venn Diagram intersection of people who both go to the theater and watch Saturday Night Live, there was no funnier sketch circa 2009 to 2012 than the game-show parody “Secret Word.” Bill Hader played the host, and Kristen Wiig the celebrity contestant Mindy Elise Grayson, a Broadway star who prattled on about her roles in a series of fictional flops. “I am an actress. That’s my craft. I read the words on a page,” Wiig would say, and then swirl around, her arms entangled in a filmy scarf.
When Wiig left the show in 2012, Mindy went off the airwaves too, but now it seems she’s alive and well on the American stage, reincarnated as the character Masha, a fading film star, in last year’s Tony-winning new play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. During the 2013-2014 season, 11 regional theater companies around the country are staging it, with even more bookings next year. The first in the wider D.C. region is at Baltimore’s Centerstage, and how funny you find the production largely depends on whether you’d like to watch a two-hour version of SNL’s Mindy Grayson sketch.
We hear Susan Rome’s Masha before we see her. She’s come home from New York for the weekend to visit her siblings at their Bucks County, Pa., homestead and starts hollering while she’s still offstage. Soon she’s prattling on about an acting coach named Derek Seretsky and bemoaning that she didn’t get that part she wanted in Chekhov’s Three Sisters: “He said I was born for the stage! I could have been the American Judi Dench!” But she rallies, because the new neighbors who just bought Dorothy Parker’s old house are hosting a costume party that evening. “Won’t it be fun?” Masha says, stretching, as Wiig might, the last word into three syllables.
She’s going as Snow White and has brought along two dwarf costumes for her siblings. Bruce Randolph Nelson plays Vanya, a dissatisfied, rumpled middle-aged gay guy, and adopted sister Sonia, whose self-esteem is so low she introduces herself as “part of the furniture.” Spike (Zachary Andrews) is Masha’s 29-year-old boytoy, a well-cut Ken doll whose limited acting talents are best revealed when he disrobes for a dip in the pond. While swimming, he meets Nina (Emily Peterson), an aspiring actress who happens to be visiting her aunt and uncle nearby. The only other non-Chekhovian character in the bunch is Cassandra (Kerry Warren), the cleaning lady who practices voodoo on her clients and spouts incantations like “Beware Hootie Pie!”
Hootie Pie would be Masha’s (offstage) personal assistant, who is urging her to sell the house. The joke might work if she named something impossibly yuppie, or even Yelena. All the humor is pitched to the hilt, and every literary pun that can be used is used twice. (“That’s not a cherry orchard, that’s 10 or 11 trees.”) This is a play that tries very hard to pander to theater people. Too hard. There are some very human moments in the show, such as when the spinster Sonia gets asked out on what must be her first date in years, but they’re denigrated by quick shifts to over-the-top silliness. Rosen seems to have encouraged his cast members to act as broadly as possible, punctuating the play with plenty of wide-eyed wailing. This might work on SNL, or in a true farce, but extreme exaggeration gets annoying quickly in two-hour literary comedy. Next year, Arena Stage will produce its own Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, with Aaron Posner directing. He’s a veteran of the Chekhovian riff, having written Woolly Mammoth’s hit Stupid Fucking Bird. If there’s a script here to elevate above sketch comedy, let’s hope Posner can find it.