In praise of Anthony and Sharon and Lorri and Spike

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Sharon Lockwood (left) is Sonia, Heather Alicia Simms (center) is Cassandra and Anthony Fusco is Vanya in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the season opener for Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Mark Junek (center) as Spike does a reverse striptease, much to the shock/delight of Fusco as Vanya, Caroline Kaplan as Nina and Lorri Holt as Masha. Photos courtesy of

If you spend any time at all going to theater in the San Francisco Bay Area, you soon see that we have some extraordinary homegrown talent populating our local stages. That’s not empty boosterism – rah, Bay Area! – but something nearing actual fact – rah, working Bay Area actors in it for the long haul! In just the last month or so, Marin Theatre Company, TheatreWorks, Aurora Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theater and Magic Theatre have opened their seasons with at least one dazzling, shake-your-head-in-wonder performance by a Bay Area actor.

Now Berkeley Repertory Theatre gives a triple scoop of local actor goodness in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the local premiere of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy. Playing the titular siblings, whose community theater-actor parents had a thing for Chekhov, are Anthony Fusco as Vanya, Sharon Lockwood as Sonia and Lorri Holt as Masha. Watching these three seasoned pros work together is a joy, to put it mildly. They have craft and nuance and real connection (with the audience and each other), and it genuinely feels like they’re having fun up there together.

Granted, Durang’s play, though rooted in the world of Chekhov and tinged with some of the same sadness borne of lives barely lived, is a jaunty vehicle for the talents of great actors. In this world, everybody is carbonated, some more than others, and everybody gets a chance to, if you’ll pardon the expression, pop their cork.

At the start, it would seem that Vanya and Sonia, now living in the country home they grew up in following the long, slow death of their parents, have absolutely no fizz left in them at all. Vanya is reasonably content – watch him take simple joy in a good cup of coffee and sunrise from the morning room – but Sonia is a lament on legs. Life has passed her by, and at 52, she has nothing to live for. She is, in effect, mourning her life in the morning room.

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Then sister Masha arrives, her international movie-star fame whirling around her like a dervish. She has lived more lives (and had more failed marriages) than her brother and sister could ever dream of having. Her current infatuation is a boy toy named Spike (Mark Junek), a wannabe actor to whom shirts and pants are but fleeting garments. He craves attention and cannot stop moving, undulating, teasing, texting and flirting with everyone. Junek’s performance is so deft, so physically alive he might as well be a modern dancer performing “Ode to 21st-Century ADHD.”

To continue the Chekhovian theme, a winsome, starstruck young lady from across the pond (literally, across the pond just outside the house) comes wandering over hoping to meet the famous Masha. Her name is Nina, naturally, and she ends up performing in a play Vanya (whom she calls Uncle Vanya just to clarify, for anyone who might be asleep, that Chekhov is the godfather of this comedy) has written, inspired by a scene from The Seagull.

Veering entirely away from Chekhov, Durang also throws in a cleaning lady named Cassandra (Heather Alicia Simms) who, like her namesake, has the power to foretell the future. In her case, though, the system is a little herky-jerky, but she gets it right a lot of the time. More the point, whenever she goes into a trance or brings voodoo into the mix, the audience goes wild with joy because Simms is so much fun to watch.

Director Richard E.T. White, returning to Berkeley Rep after an almost 20-year absence, knows that this is a light play. There are shadows to be sure, and some of it is almost poignant, but for nearly three hours, the experience is about the laughs and the mash-up of highbrow Chekhov and lowbrow pop culture and, most of all, the moments when the characters explode in effervescent bursts.

Fusco’s moment comes in the second act when Vanya has a major flip-out and decries everything about the present in favor of the gentler past. It’s a masterful tirade, and Fusco gives it all he’s got. Holt’s vainglorious Masha has multiple snit fits, not the least of which involves a costume part, her Snow White costume and a demand that everyone else be dwarfs (Spike at least gets to be Prince Charming). But perhaps Holt’s funniest moment comes when Masha attempts to realign her aura from the negative to the positive – or as positive as Masha can get.

Lockwood’s Sonia is, simply, a dream. Debbie Downer for the first part of the play, Sonia comes to life at the costume party when she makes herself pretty and sparkly and starts speaking in an imitation of Dame Maggie Smith in Neil Simon’s California Suite (for which she won an Oscar playing an actress who loses the Oscar). We watch Sonia come to life – she is re-carbonated, and it’s a beautiful thing.

The entire cast is a delight, but there’s special pleasure in watching Fusco and Lockwood and Holt bring their unique talents to bear in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a zany family comedy with the zing of sparkling wine and, thanks to marvelous actors, the occasional tang of real champagne.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Christopher Durang for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues an extended run through Oct. 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-657-2949 or visit

Theater review: `Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge’

SF Playhouse serves up a Cratchit-y Christmas
three stars Holiday hilarity

Gladys Cratchit is not having a merry Christmas.

Her husband, Bob, is a sap, a boob and a goody-goody. She has 21 starving children — including Tiny Tim, whom she refers to as a crippled idiot — and not an ounce of maternal concern.

There will be no Christmas goose or hot pudding at the Cratchits’ this year because Bob’s meager salary has been cut in half. So, for Gladys, there’s only one option: have a few drinks at the pub then jump off the London Bridge.

Can’t you just feel the holiday warmth emanating from Christopher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge? The irreverent 2002 comedy has knocked around Bay Area community theaters, but the play is only now having its professional San Francisco premiere courtesy of SF Playhouse.

Director Joy Carlin — long associated with American Conservatory Theater’s annual A Christmas Carol — knows her way around Dickens’ moralistic tale and helps make up in style what Durang’s play lacks in substance.

Ostensibly, Durang wants to give Dickens a good shake and knock off the cutesy-poo crust that has begun to encase A Christmas Carol, which, if you actually read the story, is pretty harsh and condemning of modern greed and capitalistic cruelty.

Durang knows Dickens makes potent points about our heartless world, but those points are often lost in the rush to make Scrooge a good guy, to save Tiny Tim from an early grave and to keep from scaring the children with all those ghosts.

To sharpen Carol and to keep it from being another blah humbug, Durang employs his trademark wit and cynical silliness. He makes this a post-modern Christmas Carol with a lump of coal where its heart should be.

Joan Mankin is Gladys Cratchit, and Mankin’s woebegone expression is good for a least a dozen laughs. Poor Gladys is misery personified, and her suicidal bent brings in a whole “It’s a Wonderful Life” subplot complete with George Bailey (Arthur Keng) and Clarence the Angel (Brian Degan Scott).

Durang loves mashing up his stories, so he happily skewers Oliver Twist, “Touched By an Angel” and “The Gift of the Magi,” all while deconstructing Christmas Carol.

If the focus of this two-hour romp were, as the title suggests, on Mrs. Cratchit, things would be better, but Durang wants to spend an equal amount of stage time with Scrooge (Victor Talmadge) and his various ghosts (all played by Cathleen Riddley). Talmadge is a ferocious (and funny) Scrooge, but his dealings with Jacob Marley (Terry Rucker) and the dudes from Enron (yes, Enron) steal focus from the “wild binge” we were promised.

Mrs. Cratchit’s home life is hysterical in every sense. Her husband (Keith Burkland) simpers nonstop. She keeps most of her children in the root cellar, though we do meet two nameless tykes (Gideon Lazarus and Madeleine Pauker sharing the roles with Olivia Scott Dahrouge and Henry Kinder) as well as the bonkers Li’l Nell (Jean Forsman) and Tiny Tim (the hilariously wide-eyed Lizzie Calogero).

By the time Scrooge and the ghost arrive, it’s no wonder Gladys wants to go with them. Durang’s one great conceit is that romantic sparks fly between Ebenezer and Gladys — it just feels right — though his late ’70s coda is terribly dated and lacks the requisite comic punch.

Special mention must be made of Megan Smith, a comic actor of considerable skill, who, when she’s not playing the bass or guitar during the musical numbers, mugs wonderfully in several choice supporting roles (including the Bob’s brainless second wife).

This Binge may not be as wild as it could be, and the laughs may not be as large, but time with Mrs. Cratchit is a delicious antidote to seasonal commercialism and heartless bleatings of “bless us everyone.”

Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge continues through Jan. 12 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit