Life Sucks. But Does the Play?
A contemporary Uncle Vanya comes to Theatre Row.
I've seen a lot of Uncle Vanyas lately. New Saloon utilized six different English translations of this timeless Chekhov play in its Minor Character at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival. Bedlam combined it with a Shakespearean tragedy in Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet. At Hunter College, Richard Nelson and noted translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky created a short and sweet cutting of the text, with a career-best performance by Jay O. Sanders in the title role.
The latest is Aaron Posner's Life Sucks., a production of Wheelhouse Theater Company that premiered earlier this year at the Wild Project and has now moved to Theatre Row. Posner knows his way around Chekhov adaptations. His Seagull riff, Stupid F**king Bird, is an essential contemporary stage work. But there's something about Life Sucks. that just doesn't click. Perhaps it's Jeff Wise's lackadaisical direction; perhaps it's a company of actors dispirited by delivering direct address to a sea of empty chairs. Life Sucks. feels like wheels spinning without a destination in mind.
Considering the incendiary title, Life Sucks. is a surprisingly straightforward adaptation of the Chekhov source material. Vanya (Kevin Isola) and his niece Sonia (Kimberly Chatterjee) manage the estate of her late mother, which now belongs to Sonia's distant father, the pompous Professor (Austin Pendleton), and his beautiful wife, Ella (Nadia Bowers). A visit from the unhappy couple incites disorder in everyone's lives, since both Vanya and his best friend, Dr. Aster (Michael Schantz), are both in love with Ella. The events of the weekend build to a major question: Does life suck all the time, or only on certain occasions?
Wise's Drama Desk-nominated staging is more Brechtian than Chekhovian, with the theatrical artifice present from the second we enter the space (Brittany Vasta's set simultaneously provides an onstage and backstage perspective, which is actually kind of confusing when you think about it too hard). Similarly, the frequent acknowledgements of the audience create a coldness from which the production never really recovers. It's clear at all times that these actors are playing roles (even though the script explicitly warns against this), and this prevents the needed emotions from hitting effectively.
Immune to this is Pendleton, who has played Vanya on several occasions in the past and also directed the Chekhov version. He really hits all the right notes for this take on the professor, who masks his desperate fear of his own mortality with a haughtiness that makes him the bane of everyone's existence. With one or two exceptions (Stacey Linnartz and Barbara Kingsley in supporting roles), the other actors all seem adrift to varying degrees, with Isola's everydude Vanya really lacking in the piteousness that serves as the play's driving emotion.
Of the Uncle Vanyas I've seen, Life Sucks. falls somewhere in the middle. It doesn't suck, but it doesn't not, either.