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Theatre in Review: Life Sucks (Wheelhouse Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Kevin Isola, Michael Schantz, Stacey Lennartz. Photo: Russ Rowland.

For a long time -- probably since the morning after the opening of Ivanov, in November 1887 -- the debate has raged over how to balance the unstable, mercury-like blend of farce and tragedy that makes Anton Chekhov's plays so distinctive. The playwright himself thought that Constantin Stanislavsky's productions at the Moscow Art Theatre were a bit droopy, even if they put him on the theatrical map; ever since, the pendulum has swung back and forth between neurasthenic stagings, with clinically depressed characters draped around the stage like so many limp antimacassars, and overtly comic approaches that forgo heartbreak for pratfalls. Time and again, the perfect chemical mix of moods proves to be elusive.

Which is why it's easy to appreciate the work of Aaron Posner, whose self-described "sort-of" adaptations of the Russian master's works hit the sweet spot between homage and invention. His version of The Seagull, Stupid F---ing Bird, seen at the Pearl Theatre Company in 2016, found room for both deep sadness and a devastatingly articulate, magpie sense of humor. Even better may be Life Sucks, which applies a similar methodology to Uncle Vanya. The action is updated, but the play's central relationships are preserved: The middle-aged, desperately unhappy Vanya, who manages his late sister's estate and feels his life slipping through his fingers, carries an unquenchable torch for Ella, the bored, dissatisfied wife of his brother-in-law (here known only as The Professor), a desiccated intellectual with one foot in the grave. Sonia, Vanya's niece, yearns for Aster, the depressed, alcoholic physician (and Vanya's best friend), who sometimes lusts for Ella. (Actually, just about everyone, short of the ushers in the theatre, seem to lust for Ella at one point or another.) The playwright supplies a few innovations: Waffles, the impoverished in-house hanger-on, is now Pickles, a relentlessly optimistic lesbian with a taste for handicrafts; Maria, Vanya's pretentious bluestocking mother, has been replaced by Babs, a ceramicist of a certain age and, arguably, the play's voice of reason. Otherwise, it's the same emotional pressure cooker in which crossed wires, frustrated longings, and anguished bursts of candor combine to generate plenty of drama, much of it comic.

In addition to updating the action, Posner acts rather like a tailor, undoing the original script's seams and opening it out, providing room for a form of hilarity grounded in existential sorrow. Further, everyone onstage is thoroughly aware that he or she is in a play, and, as a company, they often turn to the audience for guidance -- or, at least, a second opinion -- about their problems. Not that they need any help: Mired in misery, they never lack for catty opinions about others. Vanya, fed up with Pickles' cheery comments, asks, "How is it that nothing you say ever...leads anywhere?" He also calls her "a conversation annihilator." The Professor acidly says of Ella, "Shockingly, her self-image leads her to perceive herself much less like the near-Cate Blanchett-like siren that she really is, and more like a sweaty, disheveled Lena Dunham after a 10K charity run for Africa." The glamour-free Sonia, tired of being eclipsed by Ella, grouses, "Everyone thinks that if you look like me you have to settle for, you know, all the Steve Buscemis of the world." Every so often, the entire company will start quizzing the audience, leading some to delightful ad libs. At the performance I attended, an offended Vanya asked the audience, "How dare you use metatheatricality" to humiliate him. Ella, asking how many ticketholders wanted to sleep with her and getting an embarrassingly small number of takers, muttered, "Theatre. A safe space."

Such fun and games require both a deft director and a company of actors nimble enough to switch tones with the skill of auto racers negotiating hairpin turns. Indeed, Jeff Wise skillfully guides his cast through one mortifying situation after another, including an awkward bit of girl talk, complete with cocktails and snacks, for Ella and Sonia; an irony-laced seduction featuring Ella and Vanya; and the famous moment in which Vanya turns on The Professor with a gun, which here ends in a supreme moment of comic deflation. Kevin Isola -- taking over for Drama Desk-nominated Jeff Biehl -- delivers a Vanya who is one of the great comic complainers, equally afflicted with a scathing self-knowledge. Throwing himself at Ella yet again, insisting that to know the real him is to love him, he is brought up short when she wonders, "What are you like on the inside that is so different from what you are like on the outside?" The stunned pause that follows, in which he suddenly realizes that she has a point, is a little marvel of revelation.

He is in good company: Nadia Bowers' Ella, afflicted with a "half-finished book on phenomenology no human being would ever want to read, a seriously floundering marriage, $173,000 in student loans," and a feeling of being "irretrievably lost," is, nevertheless, a droll commentator on the follies of the others. Aster (Michael Schantz, operatically unhappy when not stumbling drunkenly over a chaise longue) asks her, "You are unbelievably bored by me, aren't you?" "Just by what you're saying," she responds. As the Professor, who authors doorstops with incomprehensible titles like "Semiotic Phenomenology and the Relational Constitution of Presence," Austin Pendleton gives the character a delightfully acid spin. "It's sometimes hard to tell if you are complimenting us or insulting us," Pickles notes. "Isn't it?" he replies, beaming. Kerry Warren's Sonia is willing to self-immolate for the love of Aster, but she also delivers a brutally accurate catalogue of euphemisms applied to plain girls: "Lovely. A great person. She's just terrific." Also fine are Stacey Linnartz as Pickles, forever mourning for a lost lover but willing to make an exception for Ella; and Barbara Kingsley as Babs, who lucidly notes that everyone onstage could use a lesson in gratitude.

The action unfolds on a set, by Brittany Vasta, that looks rather like a rehearsal room mock-up, with various pieces of mismatched furniture, a scenic flat facing upstage, and vines draped on the walls. Drew Florida's lighting includes an upstage array of color-changing LEDs and a shockingly bright lights-up cue that signals a rude awakening for Vanya. Christopher Metzger's costumes show a deep understanding of each character. Mark Van Hare's sound design includes some perky, '60s-style arrangements for keyboard and percussion along with a handful of effects.

In contrast to the dying fall of the original play, Posner provides a climactic intervention in which each of the characters confronts Vanya with the question, "What, am I supposed to feel sorry for you?", providing ample reason why not all eyes will weep for his first-world problems. It leads to a wider discussion of the proposition put forth in the play's title, with input accepted from the audience and a finale that is both inconclusive -- how else should such a discussion end? -- and oddly satisfying. For the second time, the playwright has dragged Chekhov into the twenty-first century, only to prove the durability of his insights into our strange capacity for making ourselves unhappy. The news is terrible, and yet the effect is surprisingly cheering. For all that Posner builds his work on another artist's foundation, he is a true original. --David Barbour

(11 July 2019)

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