Review by Elyse Trevers
One would expect a play with a title like “Life Sucks” to be either very depressing or very clever and satirical. Somehow The Wheelhouse Theater Company’s production of “Life Sucks” by Aaron Posner manages to be both. Loosely adapted from “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov, the play features a group of characters who are discontented with their lives. Unhappy in love, angry at aging or disturbed by the world, they suffer, sometimes finding solace in drink.
Posner has modernized the play, using current references like cell phones, actor Steve Buscemi, a line from the movie “Airplane” and Ivy League colleges. Some characters retain the original Chekhov names, while others are renamed. Nominated by Drama Desk for Best Director, Jeff Wise directs many of the original cast members. Nadia Bowers is the Ella, Kimberly Chatterjee is Sonia, Barbara Kingsley is Babs, Stacey Linnartz is Pickles, Tony Award nominee Austin Pendleton is The Professor, and Michael Schantz is Dr. Aster. Kevin Isola joins the cast to portray the anguished Vanya.
The characters consistently break the fourth wall, and then, unexpectedly, make demands upon the audience and expect feedback. The play begins with the characters lined up onstage, introduced to us. We are told the play is about “love, longing and loss and how f- – ked up the world is.”
Each of the main characters is unhappy, disappointed, or envious, and much of Chekov’s original story is intact. Yet in Posner’s version the characters emotionally support one another. The playwright makes his adaptation lighter and quite enjoyable. In between scenes, the actors describe “Three things I love,” and later “Three things I hate.” There’s an inexplicable segue into a dance.
Some of the comedy is sophisticated and offbeat. The doctor compares the beauteous Ella to an ‘ocelot” or a smoothie.” When told The Professor studies semiotics, Pickles notes that it’s “the study of big trucks.” The Professor (Pendleton ) explains how he and the lovely, much younger Ella (Bowers) are suited to one another. He envisages himself as a younger, more attractive man. In his mind he is a “Sean Connery.” Despite being beautiful and the object of every man’s desire, Ella has a weak self-image, and she sees herself as Lena Dunham. Although it may not be obvious to the rest of the world, the two are well-matched.
At first some of the characters seem extraneous and unnecessary. However, as the play continues, most get the opportunity to take center stage. The scenic design (Brittany Vasta) is the main room in Sonia’s house with colorful wall hangings and eclectic art. Sometimes one of the characters, unnecessarily and too loudly, plays the piano in the room.
Vanya, who recklessly shoots at The Professor at close range (and ironically misses badly) is despondent and suicidal. Then all the characters come for an intervention of sorts with each one approaching him and asking, “Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?” Then each, in turn, recounts and shares his/her own disappointments as if to say-think you are the only one with problems?
Those who find Chekhov daunting and depressing will find Posner’s work accessible and often humorous and even silly. Life is difficult and disappointing but it is also glorious and thrilling. Sometimes “Life Sucks.” The play’s inspirational message, although somewhat cliched, reminds the audience that “It’s what you do that matters.”