“Did you know that this play is called Life Sucks?” says a character in playwright Aaron Posner’s meta-theatrical Life Sucks. It’s a wild yet emotionally resonant work “sort of adapted from Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov.” Characters address the audience directly, they engage in sly wordplay, lollipops are consumed, overlapping dialogue is common and absurdism abounds in this free-form yet faithful treatment.
Mr. Posner updates the time period to the present, retains most of the characters, keeps basic plot and crafts dialogue with the wistful tone of the source material all with ebullience and melancholy. In addition, Posner adds intriguing flashbacks and charming musical numbers with cast members at a piano. Also retained is Chekhov’s four-act structure which makes for a periodically saggy two and a half hours with an intermission. Still, the unison of a dynamic cast, effusive staging and the bright presentation transcends the bouts of slackness.
The single Sonia manages a rural estate with her depressed middle-aged Uncle Vanya. Also living there is her witty Aunt Babs who has taken care of her since her sister, Sonia’s mother, died when Sonia was still a child. Pickles, a daffy lesbian still lamenting a lost love after 17 years, is another resident. The hard-drinking philosophical Dr. Aster is a frequent visitor.
Shattering their mundane tranquility is the arrival of Sonia’s father, The Professor and Ella, his much younger wife, for their annual visit. He is an unbearably pompous academic specializing in semiotics who has had little contact with Sonia. There are arguments, romantic complications, financial skullduggery, piano playing, and gun shots.
“But the thing is… the key thing you have to understand about life is this: Oh, fuck it, I’m too tired,” uproariously declares Austin Pendleton as The Professor, wrapping up a beautifully swirling speech detailing the indignities of old age and approach of death. Long ubiquitous on New York City stages large and small, the mature Mr. Pendleton here is enthralling in this challenging role. Employing his idiosyncratic vocal delivery, reticent manner and quirky comic timing, Pendleton’s unrepentantly arrogant characterization is perfection.
“Who out there wants to have sex with me?” Nadia Bowers hilariously calls out to the audience as the ice princess Ella. The blonde and regal Ms. Bowers’ interactive exchange here is a grand highlight of her vivid performance. Kimberly Chatterjee’s marvelous feistiness and rich expressiveness as Sonia are most evident when she stops the action to eloquently introduce all of the characters. The beaming seasoned Barbara Kingsley’s warmth, dry sense of humor and empathy make her Babs an affective delight. Animated and appealing, the breathy Stacey Linnertz fabulously seems to be in her own world at times as Pickles.
Whether blustering, sadly reflecting, or on the verge of violence, Jeff Biehl is an electrifying Uncle Vanya. Extremely laidback yet passionately erupting is the quietly charismatic Michael Schantz as Dr. Aster.
Having the cast precisely arranged in a The Usual Suspects-style lineup for a few funny confessional vignettes is one of many cool visual flourishes director Jeff Wise achieves with his charged staging. That the flawless ensemble is so easygoing and seamlessly connected is a testament to Mr. Wise’s great skills. Despite the piece’s excessive length, Wise succeeds at maintaining momentum while mining all of the comedy and emphasizing the reflectiveness.
From Persian rugs hanging on the stage’s side walls, a red floral pattern on the back wall and with a few vintage furnishings, scenic designer Brittany Vasta conjures up a lovely Chekhovian atmosphere. Drew Florida’s varied lighting design and Mark Van Hare’s subtle sound design contribute to the jauntiness and emotionalism on display. Rustic garments and casual wear for the men and some eye-catching outfits for the women, particularly Babs’ flowing multi-colored neon-hued blazer, distinguish Christopher Metzger’s excellent costume design.
With all of its entrancing wackiness, Life Sucks wonderfully evokes the essence of Chekhov where levity converges with gravity.
Life Sucks (through April 20, 2019)
Wheelhouse Theater Company
The Wild Project, 195 East 3rdStreet, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.wheelhousetheater.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission