BWW Review: Jobsite Theater Presents Christopher Durang's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

"I'm crazy about Chekhov. I never knew anybody that wasn't! People may not like Tolstoy. There are some people I know that don't like Dostoyevsky, don't like Proust or Kafka or Joyce or T.S. Eliot. But I've never met anybody that didn't adore Chekhov." --Woody Allen

In Christopher Durang's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, there are enough Anton Chekhov allusions to fill a cherry orchard. It's a funny, quirky, meaningful piece, but despite its 2013 Tony award for Best Play, it's certainly not Durang's outrageous best. Still, in the capable hands of Jobsite Theater, it is given a grade-A treatment, where a group of middle-agers worry that either they've never actually lived or that life has passed them by. The play would work without the Chekhov references, but they certainly add a fun ingredient being there--a game of Pick The Allusion for us to play throughout.

The plot isn't elaborate. Set in Bucks County, PA, brother Vanya and adopted sister Sonia are dour fifty-somethings that live in the home of their sister, the actress Masha. There world is turned upside down when Masha visits with her latest beau, a vain twenty-something actor named Spike. With idiosyncratic characteristics, hilarious actions and memorable lines, one thing is certain: We have entered Durang Land.

Brian Shea is always a treat onstage. Although he looks a bit young for the 57-year-old Vanya, he seems heavy-shouldered as middle age passes him by. His moment to truly shine comes near the end, in an extended monologue that lasts almost 15 minutes, aimed at Masha's himbo boyfriend who texted throughout a scene that was being presented. As all theater patrons know, there are few rude crimes worse than cell phones being played (noisily) while people perform. So his tirade is quite understandable, even though it goes into the direction of the world changing for the worse. Yes, we harken for the good ol' days of Kukla, Fran and Ollie and when you actually had to lick stamps, but those good ol' days also had a lot bad ol' things going on as well (McCarthyism, segregation, etc.) But it's the rant that we take with us and that we first recall when going over our favorite moments of the show.

It took me awhile to warm up to Roz Potenza's whiny Sonia, but that may be the point. She is a woman who has given up on life. At first I felt that the actress was trying to imitate some kind of fake Chekhov cadence, staring out past the audience longingly, and we start really liking her the more she is onstage. Her transformation resonates. When she goes to a party as the Wicked Queen from Snow White, literally channeling Maggie Smith's performance in California Suite, it is a sight (and sound) to behond. But one moment in Act 2 really stood out: A simple conversation where she eventually could be herself, and be real. It's the moment we've been waiting for--a woman who has given up on life finally dives in and subtly realizes there's something out there for her. It's a glorious moment, made even better by Potenza's performance.

Jamie Jones' Spike thinks he's some sort of physical specimen, a wannabe-beefcake actor. Part Kevin Kline doppelganger, part ADHD scene-stealer, and part cartoon character, he lovingly shows no shame, always in motion, and wanders around in his underwear for much of Act 1. Jones' interpretation is like a melding of rubber-faced Jim Carrey and surfer-dude Jeff Spicoli; imagine Johnny Bravo mated with Matt Frewer of Max Headroom fame and you might get a sense of the crazy energy that Jones brings to the stage. He's meant to be obnoxious and carries obnoxiousness to a new level. It's quite funny, schtick that it is, but sometimes it seems like something out of an extended SNL skit (or the old "pool boy" routine from MAD TV). But you will never be bored when Jamie Jones gleefully gyrates onstage, which is often.

Getting the most laughs was Jonelle Meyer as the attitudinal Cassandra, the prognosticating maid, with the whip-quick timing of a young Carol Burnett. She's over-the-top, but wonderfully so, and her comedic chops are at full volume. No wonder her hilarious exits earned appreciative applause. Also quite good is Emily Belvo, as the wide-eyed neighbor, Nina; she seems to be the sole voice of sanity (and also a fan of the films of Ingmar Bergman, always a good sign) and helps balance out the rest of the onstage zaniness.

The finest performance in the cast belongs to Elizabeth Fendrick's Masha, whose every line is laugh-out-loud funny, usually stated with a killer smile. What she does with her Snow White outfit that keeps inadvertently popping up still has me in stitches.

Well-directed by one of the Bay Area's finest actors, Paul Potenza, VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is perfectly suited for the intimate Shimberg Playhouse. Brian M. Smallheer's beautifully detailed set works for the actors, and Ryan Finzelbar's lighting is seamless. Brittany Reuther's costumes are appropriate, while David Jenkins' sound is overall quite good, except for a timing issue when we hear a car stop and the occupant of the car suddenly appears onstage as if the actor magically teleported from the driver's seat.

Although it's not my favorite Durang, it's certainly a winner with some terrific dialogue. "I'll have to miss it sometime," one character states in a perfectly constructed Durang line. But "miss this show" at your own peril. VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is lots of fun and filled with much laughter; where else will you see that one of a kind comic presence, Jamie Jones, "ribbit" through the audience like a frog?

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE plays in the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts until March 20th, with two shows added for March 25th and 26th. For tickets, please call (813) 229-STAR.

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From This Author Peter Nason