Comedy and Chekhov Collide at Open Book

By Daniel Skora

Wendy Katz Hiller, Connie Cowper, Kyle Kelley, Lindel Salow;  Foreground: Alexis Barrera Photography by Jan Cartwright

With characters named Vanya and Sonia and Masha all sharing marquis space in playwright Christopher Durang’s wonderfully creative mishmash of comedy and classics, one has to suppose that famed Russian author Anton Chekhov must be lurking in the background of a lot of things that take place during the play. And he is, with inklings of “Uncle Vanya”, “Three Sisters”, “The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard” scattered about like literary chestnuts waiting to be gathered and roasted and enjoyed by those whose taste buds make them so inclined. But then there’s Spike, who’s also named in the title, and Snow White, and Annette Funicello, and Ozzie and Harriet, and Maggie Smith, and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, and all manner of cultural icons who aren’t, but nevertheless stand shoulder to shoulder with all things Chekhov.

Open Book Theatre is presenting “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, which won the Tony Award for best play in 2013 and is presented here in a production that is well-cast,  well-played, and an entertaining treat from beginning to end.

Alexis Barrera as Cassandra

Vanya (Lindel Salow) and Sonia (Connie Cowper) are brother and sister who’ve passed their prime after years of caring for their now deceased parents. Vanya is gay even while seemingly bereft of a sexual drive, while Sonia tends to minimize her relationship with the family by telling everyone she was adopted into the family and hence not truly responsible for any of its unorthodox tendencies. The two live in a farmhouse owned by their sister Masha (Wendy Katz Hiller) who rarely visits but pays all the bills with the income earned from her glamorous career as a B-movie actress. Chekhov alert: the property contains less than a dozen cherry trees, not exactly an orchard but a Chekhov chestnut worthy to be reckoned with nonetheless.

The play opens with Vanya and Sonia sitting on their veranda nitpicking with each other over the merits of their morning coffee and waiting for the blue heron to make his daily stop at the pond. With much fanfare, Masha drops by with Spike, her latest boy toy in tow. Spike (Kyle Kelley) will spend much of his visit getting in and out of his clothes and generally acquiescing to Masha’s every desire. Rounding out the cast is Anna Doyle as Nina, a relative of one of the neighbors who’s an actress wannabe and star struck about being able to meet Masha, and Cassandra, the soothsaying housekeeper and voodoo practitioner played by the scene-stealing Alexis Barrera.

Anna Doyle as Nina as The Molecule

And as if such a mixed bag of characters were not enough to elicit smiles and laughter among the audience, for good measure playwright Durang throws in a costume party, a hint at a possible later-in-life romance, conflict caused by Masha declaring she’s going to sell the house, a play-within-a-play about the earth having to repopulate itself, and an end-of-play rant by Vanya that references everything that was good about life before “lol” entered the lexicon. Salow is brilliant as he makes his way through a monologue that could very well serve as a learning tool for acting students to rival any of Shakespeare’s soliloquies.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a delightfully funny play with a cast of kooky characters, a sexual breeze that blows warm and mild, and enough touching scenes to balance out the comedy. Forget Chekhov. Really. This play is wildly entertaining even if you think that Checkoff is something you do to your grocery list as you’re filling up your shopping cart. A perfect play for theatres of all stripes, here it’s done to near perfection by the Open Book.

The show is directed by Angie Kane Ferrante who’s also responsible for sound design. Lighting design is by Harley Miah, costumes by Cheryl Zemke. Stage manager for the production is Danielle Gilbert. Producer is Open Book’s Artistic Director Krista Schafer Ewbank.

Connie Cowper, Wendy Katz Hiller, and Lindel Salow

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through March 18th. Tickets can be purchased online via credit card or by mailing a check to Open Book Theatre Company at 1621 West Road, Trenton MI 48183. Further information is available by phone at 1.734.288.7753, via email at, or at their website at

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