If directing is 90 percent casting, as the adage goes, Doug Weyand’s production of Christopher Durang’s politely unhinged comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” clocks in at well over 100 percent.
The Second Generation Theatre production, which opened Friday in the Lancaster Opera House, features one of the better comic ensembles to appear on an area stage in some time. What’s more, it emphasizes both the sensitivity and absurdity of Durang’s script, which twists a formulaic story about a successful sister returning home to her bitter siblings into a charming and often unexpectedly touching commentary on human failings.
The story, peppered with references to the great works of Anton Chekhov, revolves around a sibling rivalry between the depressed brother-and-sister duo Vanya and Sonia (Louis Colaiacovo and Kirsten Tripp Kelley) and their egomaniacal sister, Masha (Lisa Ludwig), who has taken a break from her acting career to make her siblings feel even worse about themselves than they already do.
When Masha returns home for a visit with an absurdly young, absurdly millennial caricature of a boyfriend in tow (Ricky Marchese, as Spike), bizarre family quirks and long-held animosities surge to the surface. Just to amp up the absurdity, Durang has also tossed in a psychic housekeeper named Cassandra, who tosses out strange predictions and utters dark warnings about the future in a stream-of-consciousness flow reminiscent of Andy Kaufman. She is played in this production with far more than requisite theatricality by Charmagne Chi, who can make audiences erupt in laughter just by walking onstage.
Kelley’s performance is a masterpiece of frustration mixed with whatever confidence becomes when it’s filtered through a crippling lack of self-esteem. Even when she is not speaking, or perhaps especially then, Kelley telegraphs that frustration and longing in remarkable ways. She does this by emitting strange bird-like chirps, by peering into the audience or the ceiling for some guidance that never arrives.
Ludwig’s performance as the self-besotted actress with delusions of grandeur punctuated by episodes of desperate self-loathing provides an excellent counterpoint to Kelley’s neuroticism.
Colaiacovo, much missed from the Buffalo stage, returns in top form as Vanya. His second-act monologue, which ranges from the insipid glories of “Ozzie and Harriet” to the death of shared experiences in 21st-century culture, is a riveting, Paul Giammati-esque marvel.
As Spike, an underwritten character who holds this play back from greatness, Ricky Marchese renders young distractibility in believable tones, largely while in his underwear – no mean feat.
Paul Bostaph’s set serves well under Ruth Strzelewicz’s lighting design, which highlights Kelly Copps’ straightforward costuming, scanty though it may sometimes be. And Weyand, with a characteristically deft touch, keeps the comedy in constant motion.