Napa Valley Players’ wacky take on Chekov is a comic hit

Napa Valley Register Review, Dan Monez, February 7, 2018

The Napa Valley’s newest theater company has hit the mark again. Their latest production, Christopher Durang’s “Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike”, just finished its opening weekend at Lincoln Theater and moves to Vallejo’s Mira Theater this week for two additional performances.

“Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike” is a clever mashup parody of Anton Chekhov themes and characters. But, don’t let that scare you. You don’t need to have ever read a word of Chekhov to appreciate this hilarious Durang take on our common human frailties. That is not to say that it isn’t helpful to getting some of the jokes to at least be somewhat familiar with Chekhov’s themes. But, the program does a decent job of giving the audience a “CliffsNotes” summary of them.

The play opens with Vanya, (Paul Cotten), enjoying his first cup of coffee when his adopted sister Sonia, (June Alane Reif), brings him what she thinks is his first cup of coffee. Sonia is at first confused and then angered that after many years of always bringing Vanya his morning coffee, he suddenly poured his own coffee.

The argument escalates as every comment Vanya utters makes Sonia more angry — to the point that she hurls the coffee and cup onto the floor. This bickering scene is well written and superbly acted by the two veteran actors. We soon begin to see that what happened with the coffee is emblematic of their lives; routine, boring, desperate for change while needing stability.

Although they want out of their boring, purposeless lives, the change that comes upon the arrival Vanya’s sister and Sonia’s step sister, Masha, (Linda Howard), is more than they can handle. Vanya and Sonia have lived in the family home rent-free for many years.

They both sacrificed their careers and any hope of romantic relationships in their younger years to care for their elderly and ailing parents, while Masha was off becoming a successful movie star. After the parents’ death, the two just settled into the same old routine in the family home.

Masha’s arrival triggers a host of insecurities in Vanya and Sonia and ultimately in herself. First, she arrives with a “20-something” self- absorbed “boy toy” named Spike, (Michael Hunter), who immediately shakes Masha’s confidence when he meets the young and pretty neighbor Nina (Courtney South). She then announces that she is selling the house but agrees to keep paying them their living allowance.

Enter the whacky housekeeper, Cassandra, (Randi Storm), who not only cleans, (though reluctantly), but also tells the future with uncanny accuracy and great fanfare. Add an impromptu costume party, Spike’s fondness for shedding his clothes at odd moments, a reading of Vanya’s absurd original play, and you have the makings of one very funny production.

“Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike” has that perfect combination of the familiar and the unexpected. It resonates especially well with baby boomers as I saw many heads nodding at the jokes and references, especially during one of the best ranting monologues about the “good old days” ever written as delivered by Vanya. As Vanya cites examples of what he did in “his day,” I could hear audience members whispering, “yes”, “uh-huh”, “that’s right” in agreement as they also reminisced.

This production benefited greatly from Carla Spindt’s precise direction, Reif’s effective set design, and great costumes created by an entire ensemble of designers. But, the production was truly elevated by this wonderful cast.

Reif is the “everywoman” of local theater. She is always natural and versatile. Paul Cotten gives us a Vanya who is not the usual caricature lesser actors might portray. Instead, Cotten’s Vanya is warm, likeable and real. Linda Howard as Masha brings great energy to every scene. Her pace matches the frenzy of her character and her delivery is precise. While Reif, Cotten, and Howard deliver very believable and interesting characters, it was two supporting cast members who steal the show. Storm as the soothsaying housekeeper was superbly hilarious. She is a great comedic actor and her delivery and pace were spot on. Michael Hunter’s portrayal of Spike was an interesting mix of boyish charm and slyness that created a mysterious quality that was perfect for Spike. We are not sure what, (or if), he is thinking. His impromptu strip teases prior to exercising and posing his physique was hilarious.

“Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike” is a peek inside a dysfunctional family that nevertheless loves each other. By the end of the show, we care about these wacky siblings and we had some great laughs. I highly recommend it.