Sexy, funny, profound ‘Vanya;’ something fishy at Fair Park; bad ‘Hat,’ Harry


FINS AND FETISHES | The familiar song classics of ‘The Little Mermaid,’ below, get some new ones as well as a feminist message; ‘Vanya and Sonia,’ above, is one of the finest local productions of a play Dallas has seen in a decade.


ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Vanya (Bob Hess) and his sister Sonia (Wendy Welch) have been living lives of quiet desperation on their version of Walden Pond, a remote lake house in Bucks County, Penn. Now in their 50s, they spend most of their middle ages caring for elderly parents while a third sibling, Masha (Diana Sheehan), became a famous but not especially talented actress.

If the plot sounds like something out of Chekhov — or perhaps Neil Simon — it should. In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, playwright Christopher Durang throws buckets of arcane cultural, literary and theatrical spaghetti against the wall, and almost all of it sticks, including jokes about Moliere, Aeschylus, Entourage, Walt Disney, social media, good manners and the meaning of life.

It’s through the latter category that the play’s existential kernel is smuggled in, hidden under the guise of comic absurdism on its way to a profound dissection of the modern life.

Chelsea-MorganThat may sound lofty for a play that, at its core, looks very much like a sex farce. Vanya is a repressed gay man, who has never bothered to mention his orientation to his sisters. When Masha visits with her 20something boy-toy — a brain-dead, virile aspiring actor named Spike (Evan Fentriss) — she intends to lord her conquest over her jealous sister Sonia, but it’s Vanya whose libido goes into overdrive. Throw in neighborhood ingénue Nina (Julia Golder), whose effortless youth makes Masha feel every one of her wrinkles (she’s knocked the better part of a decade off her official resume, Hollywood-style), and you have a stew that simmers over an eventful weekend.

Durang has always specialized in intellectualism packaged around witty one-liners — Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and Beyond Therapy (about Roman Catholic catechism and psychiatry, respectively) are his best-known works — but Vanya is his masterpiece: Cutting, crazy, beautiful and humane.

Of course, writing this good is half the battle, but even a good play can be ruined by a bad cast or flavorless direction; luckily, Uptown Players, which is presenting this regional premiere, have assembled a flawless creative team — it is, quite simply, one of the finest productions the company  has ever mounted, and one of the best plays Dallas has seen in a decade. Director B.J. Cleveland (known, in turn, for his broadly comic performances and his balls-to-the-wall direction of comedy and musicals) strikes a perfect pitch of heart and slapstick, all taking place on Clare Floyd DeVries’ evocative set.

But the actors inhabit their characters with enviable skill. Hess’ Act 2 monologue generated spontaneous applause on opening night, as did Welch’s tender one-sided telephone conversation. Fentriss, whose abdominals could be used to grate Reggiano cheese, is almost a distraction: Handsome, charismatic, uninhibited … and did I say handsome? Alarmingly, this marks his acting debut.

Some of the best laughs, though, land courtesy of Nadine Marissa, who plays a psychic Jamaican housekeeper named Cassandra. If you “get” the joke about a clairvoyant with that name, you’ll key into the genius of Durang’s writing. And if you don’t? Well, I think I mentioned Fentriss’ abs ….

Another Jamaican makes waves onstage this week — or rather, under the sea. Sebastian (Thay Floyd) is the musically-minded crab who teaches headstrong Ariel (Audrey Cardwell) to sing in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the stage adaptation of the cartoon feature that ushered in an animation renaissance that’s still going on. The original film ran 80 minutes and featured about five songs; Act 1 alone of this production runs as long, and crams twice as many songs in that, and there’s a second act to go. That’s the curse of Disney stage shows: They bloat the charms of the original.

Screen shot 2014-02-20 at 11.04.23 AMWell, sometimes. With Mermaid, much of the delightfulness is maintained, thanks to original songwriter Alan Menken’s score and a script by Dallas native Doug Wright that explores the phallocentric hierarchy that suppresses female empowerment. Heady ideas for a kiddie show, but that’s the appeal of most animated films: Indoctrination set to a catchy beat and dancing fish.

Aside from its feminist bent, the dialogue and lyrics are chock full of oceanic puns and a deliciously evil villain in Ursula (Liz McCartney), plus some new staging ideas for this relaunch of the Broadway version. Gone, though, is one good song, replaced by a not-so-good one, and some techniques that don’t quite work. (The “swimming” is OK, but the constant flipper movement begins to look stupid.) On those occasions when the visuals don’t work, just close your eyes and listen to the voices emerging from these stellar singers. You’ll feel part of their world.

I’m not really interested in being part of the world the characters from The Motherfucker with the Hat live in: Hard-edged, criminal, morally questionable drug addicts who spend more time dropping F-bombs than actually communicating. True enough, communication is not anyone’s strong point: Not Jackie (Christopher Carlos), an ex-con trying to start over with his on again, off again lady Veronica (Christie Vela) with the help of his AA sponsor Ralph (Michael Federico). But Jackie knows Veronica is cheating on him, and his obsession to figure out who just makes life much worse for everyone.

As a character study, the play could work, if director Jamie Castaneda hadn’t miscast the show: Good actors, all wrong for their parts (as a rule, they are all about 10 years too old for their characters, and that’s just one problem). It takes about 100 minutes for the action to play out, and I left more confused about these people than when I started. If Vanya describes universal truths, then MoFo is the black hole at the center of that universe from which sense, like light, cannot escape.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 21, 2014.