Written by Aaron Posner
Sort of adapted from UNCLE VANYA by Anton Chekov
Directed by Jeff Wise
Like a plate of gluten-free blinis paired with Skinny Girl vodka, this savory theatrical treat endeavors to cater to modern tastes while retaining the flavor of a familiar Russian delicacy. All the beloved characters are here, as well as the setting and more or less the contours of the plot. But the rhythm of the show, its cultural reference points, and its syncopated take on the poetry of self-reproach are decidedly contemporary. Although the play’s main source material is Chekhov’s, there are other influences at play here. The actors begin, as they might in one of Brecht’s dramas, by speaking directly to the audience and announcing that they are about to put on a play. Throughout the show, they periodically pop open the fourth wall to ask questions of the audience, recite lists of things they love and hate, and comment on the action of the play.
Among the most vocal of the bunch is the titular Vanya (Jeff Biehl) who lives on a rambling, rural estate owned by his brother-in-law Robert (Austin Pendleton), who everyone refers to as The Professor (I’m guessing the allusion to Gilligan’s Island, that most Chekhovian of sitcoms, is not accidental). Along with Sonia (Kimberley Chatterjee), the Prof’s diligent daughter from a previous marriage, Vanya has put his own literary ambitions been aside and devoted himself to taking care of the property. It’s not the most thrilling of lifestyles, but at least it provides Vanya and Sonia with a sense of continuity and purpose. Lately, though, things have been out of whack.The professor has returned to the estate with his stunning young wife Ella (Nadia Bowers), and Vanya, much to Sonia’s chagrin, has started neglecting his work. Dr. Aster (Michael Schantz) who’s been Vanya’s best bud since grade school, has also started paying more frequent visits: ostensibly he’s helping the Professor with his declining health, but really it’s Ella he’s there to see. Sexual tensions simmer as Vanya, murderously angry with the Professor for being a pompous popinjay, lusts after Ella and questions the meaning of his existence. Dr. Aster, murderously angry with himself for being a heavy-drinking workaholic, lusts after Ella and questions the meaning of his existence. Sonia, murderously angry with Ella for being beautiful, lusts after the doctor and questions the meaning of her existence. Ella, murderously angry with everyone for seeing only her beauty, lusts after the doctor and questions her marriage. The professor, murderously angry with the aging process, lusts after his lost youth and questions how much time he has left.
On the less discontented side of the spectrum stands Babs (Barbara Kingsley), a talented ceramicist who seems to have already gone through her share of existential crises and come out the other side; and a childlike neighbor named Pickles (Stacey Linnartz), who is far too openhearted to let past hurts curdle into anger (though she, too, lusts after Ella). In an atmosphere dank with sexual tension,stifled hopes and economic worry, something is bound to erupt. And when the Professor lets fly with a particularly unwelcome piece of news, Vanya reaches his breaking point. In the ensuing mayhem, farce collides with pathos, melancholy with giddy hopefulness, and the question of whether life, suck though it may, is worth living is confronted head on.
Director Jeff Wise could stand to goose the pace a bit in the first act, but nails the perfect tragicomic rhythm in the second. The actors, all ideally cast in their respective parts, are clearly enjoying the rich parts Posner has crafted for them. Their coalescence as an ensemble mirrors the commonality, even love, that exist between the characters even when they do their best to deny it. They may be at each other’s throats, but at least they’re talking. No one here spends the day tweeting or watching kitten videos on YouTube (in the one scene in which a cell phone does appear onstage it feels jarringly incongruous). The very people who appear be the bane of Vanya’s existence may, in the end, be his only path to salvation.
Though his title couldn’t be more diametrically opposite, Posner’s message is much the same as that of another great ode to thwarted ambition, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”
LIFE SUCKS continues through April 20, 2019 at The Wild Project, 195 E 3rd Street, New York City, NY 10009. Tickets:https://web.ovationtix.com