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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Palo Alto Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Photo: Patricia Tyler, Walter M. Mayes, Judith Miller and Jimmy Mason
Photo by Joyce Goldschmid
There's a country estate, not in Russia, but Buck's County, PA; a cherry orchard, if nine or so trees can be counted as an orchard; no seagull, but we do have an elusive blue heron; and while there are three siblings, only two are sisters (unless the gay brother can somewhat count as the third). If we add in that all three siblings were named by their professor/actor parents for Chekhov characters and that they spend much of the play bemoaning their lots in life, then we can truly conclude that Christopher Durang has in fact created in his Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike a mixed-up, mashed-up conglomeration of the grand Russian master's most famous plays (i.e., Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters).

The 2013 Tony winner for Best Play has since been produced coast-to-coast and now lands on the stage of Palo Alto Players as the final installation of the company's 85th anniversary "Toniest Season Ever." With superb, imaginative, tongue-in-cheek direction by Linda Piccone and a cast of weird and wacky characters, the season's bowing production is definitely a hit not to be missed.

After spending fifteen years taking care of their ailing, now-deceased parents, Vanya and Sonia are fifty-something, never-married siblings who sit most days in the morning room of their childhood home doing not much at all—certainly not being employed. Bickering at each other and bemoaning their wasted and wasting lives appears to be the main occupation of the two, with the additional element of Sonia constantly reminding Vanya (and anyone else in earshot) that she is not really a member of the family, but only adopted.

Into a morning like any other unhappy morning barges their voodoo-practicing housekeeper Cassandra, who embodies her Greek-legend namesake to the hilt. "Beware the Ides of March," she greets them (admitting that March has past and this is mid-April), adding a number of other warnings, including ones about someone named "Hootie Pie" and about "something happening to this house." She can hardly get out the words, "Be wary ... Something bad is coming," when unexpectedly arrives the third member of the family, Masha. The second-rate, washed-up movie actress has made her fame and some fortune in movies as a nymphomaniac serial killer, has been through five husbands, and is the sole supporter of her siblings and owner of the family home. And she arrives with a much younger (underline much) abs-perfect specimen of a guy named Spike (a name not found in Chekhov) who almost got a part in the movie sequel Entourage 2, his biggest claim to fame thus far beyond his Playgirl pin-up looks and his dimwitted mind.

As Spike proceeds to take off his clothes while teasing and rubbing up against a flummoxed and blushing Vanya; Masha and Sonia trade "Poor me" one-ups and insults; and Cassandra makes more dire warnings, an innocent, young woman visiting the estate next door, Nina, arrives on the scene. Spike is aroused, Masha is jealous, and Vanya suddenly becomes an "Uncle" to the starry-eyed, wannabe actress who adores him on first sight. Just to make things really fun, Masha announces they are all heading to a costume party where she will be Snow White and they will be characters supporting her (Spike as Prince Charming and the rest as dwarfs). That does not go over exactly peachy, and neither does her next bit of news—that she plans to sell the family home, to the horror of her siblings, both unemployed and void of ambition.

The massive-framed, tall, and burly Walter M. Mayes is an inspired casting choice for Vanya, not only for his lumbering yet commanding stage presence as the namesake of Chekhov's most famous, larger-than-life character, but particularly for his abilities to portray with much nuance the sad and silly, yet lovable and likable Vanya. Whether dressed as the dwarf Doc, dutifully traipsing off to the party as told to do so by Masha, or going off on a multi-minute tirade about all things lost in their present lives once so loved in their childhood (like getting to lick postage stamps, wearing Davy Crockett coonskin hats, and watching Ozzie and Harriet), Mr. Mayes is comically brilliant in a straightforward sort of manner.

Contrasting greatly in size and often mood is the diminutive Patricia Tyler who is equally wonderful as the prune-faced, sad Sonia, whose protracted sighs are often louder than her words and who continually underplays Sonia in ways to let subtle power through for great effect. Her continual, spontaneous chant of "I am a wild turkey" is increasingly funny for all who remember that the line echoes the "I am a seagull" from a young girl in The Seagull. But when Sonia decides to defy her bossy sister and dress at the costume party not as Dopey, as directed by Masha, but rather as Maggie Smith dressed as the Evil Queen on her way to the Oscars, watch out. Her changed voice with upper-crust accent, her disposition of combined flair and dignity, and her overall looks transforming her from plain to beautiful are enough to bring lots laughs and even a potential boyfriend—maybe her first real one in fifty-two years.

Judith Miller is the flamboyant, egocentric Masha who plays every minute as if under the gaze of a movie camera. For all her own glamour and glamorous life (especially when compared to those of her siblings), she too is full of expressed woes of getting older and of having a young lover who alternates humping and tonguing her and acting like he cannot wait to do the same to either Nina or Vanya. Ms. Miller's Masha is always seeking the spotlight on herself in hilarious yet pitiful ways but slowly begins to shed her stage face to reveal a heart that in fact does beat for the love of someone other than herself.

Two more minor roles deserve their own kudos. Kelsey Erhart's Nina is a perfect mixture of outward naiveté and inner savvy. She fawns over the movie actress, adores her new "Uncle Vanya," and tolerates to a point the lusting Spike, finally assessing the latter as, "He's so attractive ... except for his personality." She is particularly funny taking on so seriously a role of a Molecule for a surreal play Vanya has written about a world destroyed by global warming.

Damaris Divito's Cassandra is delicious and devilish. She jerks and jumps while incanting spells and warnings all around the household. She sticks pins into a Snow White doll while we hear an unseen Masha screaming in pain. All along, she generally takes on an attitude of superiority and all knowing even in her servitude status while drawing many deserved laughs from the audience.

As good as the other actors are in the play, there is no way fully to describe how perfect Jimmy Mason is as Spike. First, it must be noted that there is not an ounce of fat on this ripped, muscled body—most of which we get to see in full light. The rambunctious, randy stud whoops at will, pumps his fist in the air for his own pleasure, and spontaneously drops to do push-ups—all with no connection to any current conversation of others and to no purpose except to show off his body and to have a good time for himself. There is not much evidence of a brain, but his brawn is more than enough for all present—except the more skeptical, discerning Nina. Mr. Mason is totally a star in this role, with it difficult to imagine who could have been better cast.

As is oft the case, Kuo-Hao Lo has designed a set that defies description adequate enough to do justice. The stone-walled morning room with high ceiling and just enough hints of other rooms and outdoor scene is made perfect by Selina Young's lighting and Jeff Grafton's sounds of unseen birds. Jeffrey W. Hamby has donned each person in the dumpy pajamas, the over-done look of fashion, or the skimpy Calvin Klein underwear appropriate for the particular character and has further ensured that each is dressed for full comic pleasure when off to the costume party they go.

As mentioned, much praise goes to director Linda Piccone. She clearly discovered countless avenues to highlight the absurd and hilarious nature of Mr. Durang's script while also finding ways to uncover the heart and warmth sprinkled throughout the comedy, with all brought to a touching, satisfying ending as the Beatles sing "Here Comes the Sun" in the background.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues through June 26, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at or by calling 650-329-0891.