Sibling silliness

'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' is a humorous homage to Chekhov

Gloom, doom and insecurities that reach comedic proportions plague three middle-aged siblings in Christopher Durang's farce "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," which the Palo Alto Players premiered at the Lucie Stern Theater on June 10 (performances continue through June 26).

The story revolves around a mash-up of characters from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's best-known works and brings his classic melancholic themes to a country estate in modern-day Pennsylvania, where siblings Vanya (Walter M. Mayes) and Sonia (Patricia Tyler) are living a boring existence until their narcissistic movie-star sister Masha (Judith Miller) and her much younger boy toy Spike (Jimmy Mason) make a surprise visit one weekend.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha -- named after Chekhov characters by their theater-loving parents -- quickly turn the quiet household into chaos as they bicker over sibling rivalries, rub salt into old wounds and bond over their mid-life crises while Spike energetically runs around half dressed showing off his six-pack abs to anyone and everyone who will look.

The cleaning woman, Cassandra (Damaris Divito), adds to the turmoil with her frequent and long-winded gloomy prophecies. "Beware of the ides of March. Beware the middle of the month. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Oh my God, I see something imminent ... Beware," she cries out, warning against everything from bad weather to Masha's arrival.

Things heat up further when the youthful Nina (Kelsey Erhart), who is an aspiring actress, wanders over from her aunt and uncle's house next door, fueling Masha's insecurities and jealousy.

The show, which opened off Broadway in 2012 and won the Tony Award for best play a year later, relies on dialogue and character development, rather than a complicated plot with lots of action, to push the play along.

We learn about the siblings' dysfunctional relationships and somber mood swings within the first moments of the play, when Sonia coolly (and humorously) hurls her brother's coffee mug against the wall during their absurd morning ritual of bickering over the mundane.

"I dreamed I was 52, and I wasn't married," Sonia whines.

"Were you dreaming in the documentary form?" Vanya replies.

Mayes brings an added dimension to the role of Vanya with his dry tone and looming stature, which contrasts against his character's generally meek and quiet persona. This contrast hits a humorous level when he agrees to dress as one of the "Seven Dwarfs" to appease Masha at a costume party. His tall frame almost has to duck when he enters the morning room, dressed as "Doc."

Palo Alto-native Mason as Spike offers plenty of energy and a carefree attitude that the other characters lack, and his interpretation of the "dumb boy toy" brings a lot of comic relief. He's loud, obnoxious and amusingly annoying. Mason played Spike in Pennsylvania's Bucks County Playhouse a year after the show closed on Broadway alongside playwright Durang (who starred as Vanya) and developed his particular nuances for the character while working with him.

With set design by Kuo-Hao Lo, all scenes take place in the morning room of the family's farmhouse in Buck's County. The room is located on the back side of the home's exterior stone wall and boasts books on a shelf and comfortable wicker chairs. Although there are no set changes, shadows and light cast against the stone fireplace indicate changes in the time of day, setting the mood and separating scenes in the first half of the play.

The play's slow pace, which unfolds with the nearly constant bickering between characters over the course of two days, could easily have become tedious, but the cast's chemistry and comedic timing is spot on, prompting laughter throughout the performance. Under Linda Piccone's direction, the characters come across as deep and likeable, despite the absurd context. Even those who don't know much about Chekhov's works should still enjoy this witty performance.

What: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," presented by Palo Alto Players

When: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m; and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 26.

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $32-$46

Info: Go to PA Players

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