AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Christopher Durang
Directed by Linda Piccone
Presented by Palo Alto Players
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA /(650) 329-0891

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Laughter fills the theater as Palo Alto Players stages "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" by Christopher Durang.

Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, this dark comedy blends references to plays by Anton Chekhov through characters' names as well as other details.

It's set in the present in a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pa., occupied by the first two title characters. Both in their 50s, Vanya (Walter M. Mayes), who is gay, and Sonia (Patricia Tyler), who was adopted, are siblings who have lived there virtually all of their lives. They cared for their parents through the trials of old age.

Neither has been married or held a job. They seem content to continue with their humdrum lives.

Their routine is interrupted by an infrequent visit by their glamorous movie-star sister Masha (Judith Miller). Currently unmarried after the failure of her fifth marriage, she's accompanied by her handsome but clueless boy-toy, Spike (Jimmy Mason), who has a penchant for strutting around in his underwear and shouting.

Masha, who has been paying all of the household expenses, has decided to sell the house. She has given no thought to what Vanya and Sonia would do or where they would go.

She also plans to attend a neighbor's costume party.

Besides these four outrageous characters, there's another, Cassandra (Damaris Divito), the housekeeper. She frequently issues dire prophesies.

The only apparently normal character is Nina (Kelsey Erhart), a young aspiring actress visiting nearby relatives.

Although the play can easily lapse into sitcom, director Linda Piccone keeps a tight rein on the antics, allowing the humor to come through without going overboard.

All six actors are well cast. Erhart as Nina embodies the character's sincerity and naivete, a pleasing blend. Even though Spike is hard to take, Mason fills the role ably.

Mayes excels in Vanya's tirade against modern technology versus the simpler days of things like rotary phones, typewriters and mailed letters.

Tyler's Sonia blossoms because of the party. Her telephone conversation the next morning holds the audience rapt.

Like her siblings, Miller's Masha does some growing, overcoming some of her narcissism and becoming more self-aware. Finally, Divito is a hoot as Cassandra with her extravagant behavior and often accurate predictions.

Artistic values are strong with the set by Kuo-Hao Lo, lighting by Selina Young, sound by Jeff Grafton and especially the character-specific costumes by Jeffrey W. Hamby.

Like Chekhov's plays, this one can be hard to pull off, but PAP does a great job of entertaining the audience. It runs about two and a half hours with one intermission.

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