It is not surprising that Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” figures centrally in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” because there is something of a classic animated cartoon in Christopher Durang’s 2012 Tony Award-winning comedy.
The funniest moments in the play, now being ably directed by Mary Arnault at Cotuit Center for the Arts, are those when the six characters seem to exist in a room on a stage in a world like ours, although one that is less tangible and not quite subject to the same laws of cause and effect.
Despite the abundant use of actual place names and topical references, the characters are living in a cartoon space where bickering siblings trade poison apples in the form of bitter barbs and where people cry, albeit briefly, but no one can really be hurt.
If we felt that the characters could feel genuine, lasting pain, the spark of fun would fizzle and the faux weight of the story would collapse on itself—hence the need for cartooning in the Anton Chekhov-inspired narrative and characterizations.
In the book “Understanding Comics,” storyteller and arts theorist Scott McCloud describes cartooning as “amplification through simplification.” The more simply and exaggeratedly a character is drawn, the easier it is for the reader to identify that character’s essential personality traits. Think of Charlie Brown’s stoic frown.
This process, as valuable to playwrights as it is to animators, is instantly evident in four of the six performances. The remaining two—the roles of Vanya and Sonia—are interesting, subtle variations on the cartoon character.
As Vanya and Sonia’s always-beautiful, sometimes-dutiful sister Masha, Celeste Howe plays the least abstracted of the four characters in the first group.
She embodies the part with the poise of the fading movie star she is supposed to be. When her polished surface cracks, she earns our pity, momentarily, then goes back to behaving badly.
Elliott Sicard clearly enjoys playing Masha’s buffoonish boy toy, Spike, who gleefully strips to his underwear for no reason.
His most hilarious scene is his rapid-fire solo recounting of his failed audition for HBO’s “Entourage 2.”
As the eager ingenue Nina, Cara Gerardi excels at playing the wide-eyed girl-next-door as well as a humorous humanoid molecule in the show’s play-within-the-play.
The most cartooned character on the stage is Janet Geist Moore’s delightfully over-the-top turn as the Russian cleaning woman/Greek oracle/voodoo priestess Cassandra.
Ms. Moore performs well with her entire body, and she makes her prognosticating presence felt in every scene she enters.
If those four were the only characters in the play, we might dismiss Durang’s satirical comedy as a total farce in the mode of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” a zany romp in which two “Vanya and Sonia” actors—Ms. Gerardi and Mr. Sicard—also performed recently at Cotuit Center.
However, leading the cast are the moody middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia, who show just enough depth and vulnerability to lift the comedy, in its most heightened beats, into the realm of Chekhovian drama.
Margy Marhdt, as Sonia, is believable and poignantly pathetic in her protestations against Masha’s emotional neglect and memory’s sharp reminders of missed opportunities.
When, for an unexpected costume party, she dons the sequined dress and tiara of Dame Maggie Smith at the Oscars ceremony, she transforms—and here the “Snow White” references resurface—from an ill-fated frump to a convivial, even commanding queen. We hold out small hope that her moment of liberation will carry forward into a new relationship, although the script’s ending leaves us unsure.
John Weltman, as Vanya, has the most understated and irreducible role—that is, until he casts aside all inhibitions and launches into a pitch-perfect many-minute monologue contrasting the shared entertainments of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s with the more isolated and isolating pastimes of today.
His frustrated homosexuality is touched on and tweaked throughout the play, but Mr. Weltman brings it achingly to life in a revelation about his long-ago crush on the troubled child star Tommy Kirk from “The Mickey Mouse Club” and “Old Yeller.”
A classic Disney cartoon moment this is not.
Finally, one of the most striking parts of “Vanya and Sonia” on Cotuit Center’s main stage is the massive, tremendously beautiful set designed by Andrew Arnault.
While it is unlikely to have been intentionally done, the carefully crafted set follows a common technique in Japanese manga (comic books) and anime (animated films) called “masking” in which a cartoony character is set against a photorealistic background for a range of clarifying and contrasting effects.
Go see “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” and see what you think of this topsy-turvy take on “The Cherry Orchard” and other renowned plays. It is well worth the time and money.