Theater & Dance
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

By: Christopher Durang
Produced by: Palo Alto Players
Directed by: Linda Piccone
Featuring: Walter M. Mayes, Patricia Tyler, Damaris Divito, Judith Miller, Jimmy Mason, Kelsey Erhart
Running time: One intermission
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Through: June 10-26, 2016
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $32-$46; call 650-329-0891 or visit

Mayes, Tyler
Richard Mayer / Palo Alto Players
Walter M. Mayes as Vanya, left, and Patricia Tyler as Sonia, siblings who haven't yet figured out how to live, in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," by Christopher Durang, produced by Palo Alto Players. The show is running June 10 through June 26, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.
Hilarity wins the day in
'Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike'
Palo Alto Players does a great job
staging the wonderful Christopher Durang comedy
June 18, 2016

Yes, there are references to the works of Anton Chekov in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" (such as the first three of those names), but that doesn't matter. What matters is that Christopher Durang wrote the play, which means in this case that it is hilarious.

Durang is a brilliant playwright who gets audiences roaring with laughter but still manages to poke them in the eye with deeper meanings.

Witness his "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You," in which Durang took on the Catholic Church, and won.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," in the almost completely excellent production by Palo Alto Players, had gales of laughter blasting around the hallowed hall of the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

Damaris Divito
Richard Mayer / Palo Alto Players
Damaris Divito as Cassandra the housekeeper casts a charming spell over "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

There are many laughs in this show, some delivered in surprising, non-verbal ways, such as when Walter M. Mayes — who has another career as Walter the Giant, a story teller — enters for the first time, so tall that his head almost hits the crossbeam under the "Home Sweet Home" sign of Kuo-Hao Lo's charming set.

His height makes for an even better joke later.

Mayes plays Vanya, a middle-aged homosexual who lives mostly alone with his tragically lonely and downbeaten sister, Sonia (played with considerable excellence and range by Patricia Tyler).

Vanya and Sonia spent their early adulthoods caring for their parents, and now have reached middle age with no hopes, no plans and very few skills. They are worried that their sister, Masha, a financially successful movie star, will sell their home and quit supporting them.

That fear seems about to be realized when Masha — whose success came playing a nymphomanic serial killer in "Sexy Killer" and its many sequels — is thinking of selling the house, on the advice of her personal assistant, Hootie Pie.

Masha's fifth marriage has ended, but she brings Spike with her, a wanna-be actor who loves to strip down to his underwear and shout "Whoo!" Spike is played by the extremely buff Jimmy Mason, a native of Palo Alto who had the experience of playing the role in Pennsylvania with Durang himself as Vanya. Spike is not a throw-away role; yes, for most of the play he is just eye candy and over-the-top silliness, but in Act II he has a transition to sincerity that is short but very well delivered.

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Masha insists that Vanya and Sonia dress as dwarves to accompany her — dressed as Snow White — to a costume party. Mayes in a dwarf costume is hilarity itself, although he carries it off with dignity and acceptance. Sonia opts, instead, to be the Evil Queen, as played by Maggie Smith, on her way to the Oscars, and is wonderful.

Got that? Durang at his best.

Mayes, who has appeared on lots and lots of Bay Area stages, gets a great speech in Act II, in which he fondly remembers his youth, contrasting it to the smartphone-dominated present. Mayes delivers with excellence.

Masha is played by Judith Miller, who brings great, over-the-top self-pity and arrogance to the role, exactly as needed. Masha is at least as insecure as Vanya and Sonia.

Erhart, Mason
Richard Mayer / Palo Alto Players
Kelsey Erhart as Nina, left, watches Jimmy Mason as Spike in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

Also on hand is Damaris Divito as Cassandra, the housekeeper. Divito, who is quite beautiful, has a wonderful voice that at times sounds like she is rolling marbles under her tongue. Or something. Her syllables roll out of her mouth in a fascinating way, especially when she is using a voodoo doll to try to convince Masha to not sell the house.

There's lots of over-the-top in this show, and perhaps the only seemingly sane character in the play is Nina, a neighbor, played by Kelsey Erhart. In that sense, it is a thankless role, because while all these other characters are going to extremes, Nina mostly remains sane.

Except, maybe, when Nina reads the role of a molecule in a play written by Vanya.

Like I said: Durang. Which is short for "deranged."

Kuo-Hao Lo's set is a handsome thing, the back patio of a very nice house. Don't think too much about the location of the chimney, which apparently puts a fireplace in a narrow hallway opposite a flight of stairs. It looks good from our vantage.

Jeffrey W. Hamby's costumes were excellent, from the beauty of Cassandra's sexy duds to the the silliness of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves costumes. Selina Young's lighting design worked downstage on the patio, and upstage in the house's interior. Jeff Grafton's sound design got all the dialogue to us clearly, which is an accomplishment at the Lucie Stern.

The great Linda Piccone did an excellent job as director, and her blocking of Mayes' excellent speech about his past made it work even more powerfully.

Email John Orr at

Mason, Tyler, Mayes, Miller
Richard Mayer / Palo Alto Players
Jimmy Mason as Spike, Patricia Tyler as Sonia, Walter M. Mayes as Vanya and Judith Miller as Masha in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," by Christopher Durang, produced by Palo Alto Players. The show is running June 10 through June 26, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.