‘Life Sucks’ by Aaron Posner, a Punchy, Waggish ‘Uncle Vanya’ Update That Keeps You Laughing, Starring Austin Pendleton
Life Sucks by Aaron Posner, presented by Wheelhouse Theater Company in its New York Premiere is a knee-slapping, aisle-rolling riot. The adroitly rendered production directed by Jeff Wise boasts superb ensemble acting, edgy, rapid-fire pacing, scintillating vibrance and abject fun as the audience is raked over the coals of rejection and dragged through emotional torments, trials and tribulations of love, lust and allurement. And for dessert at the end of every scene and act, you’ll enjoy over-sized irony wrapped in a continual joke fest.
Who are the actors and characters that satisfy the audience’s need for mirth in our hour of great need when the blackened pages of the redacted Mueller Report loom over our plebeian, miserable heads? They may be found as a variation of characters from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya but with an update for all seasons within the USA or the U.K. in the twenty-first century.
What happens when you set a number of miserable, bored, ungrateful and psychically damaged characters in a room with each other? Anton Chekhov investigated this over 100 years ago and directors and actors have been doing the same ever since. Within a modernized version that simulates the structure and most of the characterizations, Aaron Posner presents his examination of such individuals all the while twitting them with a droll and LOL sardonic perspective.
Uncle Vanya’s humorously morose, whiny, masochistic victim is portrayed by the completely heartfelt (especially at the conclusion) and totally believable Jeff Biehl who steers the production blaring out Uncle Vanya’s shredded inner life so we completely identify that yes, “Life Sucks!” The original quote attributed to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary reads with the horrific refrain, “Life sucks, then you die.” (SPOILER ALERT-do not read the last sentence) However, in the play Posner saves us from the inevitable exclamation point for Uncle Vanya.
The unobtrusive, slighted, self-critical Sonia (Chekhov’s Sonya) is portrayed by the adorable Kimberly Chatterjee who manages to tone down her adorableness just enough for us to not consider why the attractive Dr. Aster (Chekhov’s Astrov-played by Michael Shantz with mirey depressiveness) elects to frantically, humorously lust after Ella who spurns him, rather than to seek the comforting arms of the sweet, cute, funny Sonia.
Ella (in Chekhov, Yelena) portrayed with exceptional wit by Nadia Bowers, during narcissistic moments of externality, considers herself to be the “IT” girl with the overwhelming problem of attracting men and women she doesn’t want. All the males are entranced with her, especially because she is married to the elderly professor, Sonia’s Dad, played by the inimitable Austin Pendleton who is her counterpart in self-loathing, but for different reasons.
Pendleton is expertly hysterical, yet completely believable as he expresses that Ella’s image of her outward appearance and confidence mirrors the professor’s inner intellect and image of himself. Nevertheless, both are devastated; she by her own self-loathing and lack of psychic confidence and emotional wholeness, and he by his irreversible condition of O.L.D. How Posner’s elucidates their relationship is humorous and reminds us how and why opposites attract and then whip each other for it with great similarity.
Interestingly, it is the marriage of “ocelot” Ella with the professor that Uncle Vanya and Dr. Aster find a “come on” because “they” believe themselves to better for her than the professor. This obvious disconnect of the marriage between Ella and the professor frustrates both men. It also sends the crabby, murderous Vanya into rages and mordant behavior which of course is authentically funny. The self-confident but despondent doctor acts out his lust on Ella without asking permission, is rewarded, then verbally rejected. Interestingly, he takes this in stride. Can he do anything else when she refuses to run away with him?
The object of Vanya’s and the doctor’s desires portrayed with affability and outer confidence by Nadia Bowers, too, is filled with annoyance and frenzy that is driven by her compromised psychic state. She has everything any woman could want and can’t get out from under her own misery. Neither love nor lust satisfies and not even Pickles’ (Stacey Linnartz is the perfect foil for Bowers) alluring kiss can offer Ella any hope of lifting her out of herself.
Only Babs-Chekhov’s character Maria (the sane and moderate Barbara Kingsley) seems to be at a steady, “Goldilocks,” emotional state. Within she appears to have achieved self-contentment. She is the Zen Mother and well-meaning philosopher/artist and mother to Vanya. She appears grounded and whole. As foils go, Barbara Kingsley is measured and with near perfection, she rounds out this well shepherded, sterling ensemble as she manages to corral her son (the prickly Biehl) with intelligence.
What I particularly enjoyed was how each character engages the audience in their solo moments with a genuineness so acute that one believes the real actor behind the mask stands emotionally/psychically naked before us. This direct address channeling is difficult to achieve sans actors’ expertise, relaxed confidence, witty, ironic tenor, and, of course, damned superb writing. For example, I saw another production recently with uneven performances especially in the solo sections which didn’t ping with authenticity. The contrast between the two productions was striking with regard to the actors’ solos.
Life Sucks is a treasure which should be extended, if possible. This New York Premiere by Wheelhouse Theater Company just brings down the house! It will engage you like no other production this spring. It achieves a trinity of excellence in the writing, ensemble work and direction. All cohere seamlessly and the high points resonate and recede with the undulations of life’s joys and self-indulgent sorrows. Surely, the themes are clear; there are some things that cannot be changed. And the petulance of not wanting to make the best of our own personal situations is sheer foolishness.
Special recognition to the designer creatives who include Brittany Vasta (Scenic Design) Christopher Metzger (Costume Design) Drew Florida (Lighting Design) Mark Van Hare (Sound Design).
Life Sucks runs with one intermission at The Wild Project (195 E. 3rd St) until 20 April. For tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.