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23 Sep 2017

Dysfunction on Display: Opening-Night Unevenness Aside, Desert Rose's 'Vanya and Sonia' Is a Blast

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Jim Strait, Heather Brendell and Adina Lawson in Desert Rose's Playhouse of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Jim Strait, Heather Brendell and Adina Lawson in Desert Rose's Playhouse of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Morningstar Productions.

The Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off its sixth season with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s witty look at lost dreams and family dysfunction. The production is almost home run … almost.

The show opens as middle-aged siblings Sonia (Adina Lawson) and Vanya (Jim Strait) bemoan their uneventful lives over a cup of coffee in their Bucks County, Penn., house. Neither has moved out of their childhood home. It’s where they cared for their aging parents (now both deceased), and where they enjoy refuge from the trials and tribulations of life, subsidized by their movie-star sister, Masha (Heather Brendel). Vanya is a gay, mild-mannered, aspiring playwright, while 52-year-old Sonia (adopted into the family at age 8) is unmarried and bipolar.

Soon, their voodoo-practicing, fortune-telling cleaning lady, Cassandra (Alma Lacy), arrives, bringing with her predictions of doom and gloom. Things really get intense when Masha shows up unexpectedly, with her new young boy toy, Spike (Cody Frank), in tow.

Arrogant and demanding, Masha is tormented by the fact that her ingenue days are long gone. She needs the spotlight like the rest of us need oxygen, and must always be the center of attention. She looks down on Sonia and has little sympathy for her sister’s frequent emotional outbursts. Sonia, meanwhile, resents having sacrificed years of her life caring for their late parents while Masha was jet-setting around the world.

In the midst of the bickering, Masha makes two big announcements. First, she’s decided to sell the house, forcing her siblings to find more modest accommodations; second, they’ve all been invited to a costume party down the street. It’s all been planned out, and Masha has brought costumes for everyone. She will be attending as Snow White; Spike will be the Prince; and Sonia and Vanya are relegated to the roles of dwarfs. Sonia refuses, instead stealing her sister’s thunder as the Evil Queen (as interpreted by Maggie Smith).

Soon, the lovely Nina (April Mejia) is added to the mix; she’s an aspiring actress who lives next door. Masha is flattered by Nina’s admiration, yet angered that the young girl has captured Spike’s interest.

Everyone in the cast has memorable moments in this production, but the acting is uneven at times. The amazing Adina Lawson is unquestionably the standout. Her Sonia is riveting, hilarious, pitiful, poignant and wise, all at once. She has some of the best lines in the play. While extolling the virtues of her late father, she adds, “And he never molested me,” to which her brother replies “That’s nice.” Later, when someone suggests she could get a job at CVS, she shoots back: “I’d prefer death.”

Jim Strait’s Vanya seems a bit too subdued early on, but he has some great comic moments as he attempts to hide his sexual attraction to Spike. He definitely rises to the occasion in a passionate monologue near the end of the play during which he rails against the losses of his life, including black-and-white TV, and postage stamps you had to lick.

Alma Lacy’s Cassandra is a real hoot. Her blustering entrance—she’s clad in a billowing caftan and a curly red wig—really makes an impression. She throws herself into the voodoo sequences wholeheartedly, and makes the audience believe she really does have supernatural powers.

Heather Brendel is cast well as B-movie queen Masha. Her comedic acting chops are evident during her spats with Sonia, and her futile efforts to keep Spike from stripping down to his skivvies. Her performance seemed a bit one-note in the early scenes, but the character became fleshed out later on. Some of Brendel’s best moments are as Snow White (the Disney version), a persona she really makes her own.

As vapid sex-object Spike, Cody Frank holds his own, but he could use a little more swagger. This is not the first character Frank has played which called for him to show some skin. He has the body for it and is certainly is easy on the eyes. But parading around onstage in your underwear takes a lot of self-confidence—and that is sometimes missing in this performance.

Rounding out the cast as Nina, April Mejia does a fine job. Wide-eyed and innocent, she is the quintessential sweet ingénue. She’s absolutely adorable when she reluctantly appears in her dwarf costume, as mandated by the jealous Masha.

Special mention needs to be made about the sound design and exquisite original music by Mark Bennett. It adds just the right touch to the play.

Robbie Wayne wears several hats regarding the production. His set design and costumes are terrific. As the director, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast. The main problem here is pacing: Timing is everything in comedy. Perhaps it was a case of opening-night jitters, but there were occasions when you could drive a train through the pauses between the actors’ lines. I think a couple of speed-read run-throughs might do the trick. There were also a couple of dead spots during costume changes, during nothing was happening onstage, that went on too long.

Despite these minor flaws, I recommend seeing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It’s funny, sad and thought-provoking—and a good way to kick off the Coachella Valley theater season.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.n., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 15, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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