By Jeff Ritter
Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s work has influenced everyone from James Joyce to Tennessee Williams. He died in Germany, complications from tuberculosis, at age 44, while as thousands of St. Louisans were strolling around the 1904 World’s Fair. Who knows what brilliant works Chekhov might have penned had he lived a longer life. Alas, life sucks and then you die, right?
Perhaps that’s too grandiose. As Aaron Posner, the irreverent adapter of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” teaches us in his modernized and westernized “Life Sucks,” it indeed often does, but there’s also a silver lining somewhere close by. Seek and ye shall find, and if good theatre is what lightens your heart in the dreariness of 21st century life, ye shall find it at the New Jewish Theatre.
“Life Sucks” is a little bit like the “Deadpool” movies, though nowhere as crude. They both frequently break the fourth wall and acknowledge that they are acting in their own artistic medium. Sometimes that can be a little weird and take the audience out of their suspension of disbelieve, but here it seems to be an effective tactic.
The show flows smoothly from group “short answer” discussions, similar to your friends’ Facebook posts where they try to get you to name three songs you love, or three guilty pleasures, etc., to a scene or two between the actors, and then a short monologue that gets into the heads and hearts of each character.
This rhythm repeats until every actor has had their chance to fill in some blanks in their back story and bring the underlying plot full circle.
The characters are generally interesting in their own right, and made better by the fine actors portraying them. Vanya (Christopher Harris) is a volcano of insecurities about to erupt. He is the caretaker of his sister’s estate where he lives with his niece Sonia (Katy Keating) and his late sister’s best friend Babs (Jan Meyer), who came for her funeral and never left.
She frequently socializes with the handsome Dr. Aster (Jeff Cummings), who lives next door. Sonia has a huge crush on him. Pickles (Michelle Hand), Vanya’s half-sister — perhaps more than half, three-eighths, maybe — lives above the garage and helps around the estate.
Their relatively comfortable, if unfulfilling, routine is disturbed by the return of the Professor (Greg Johnston), Vanya’s estranged brother-in-law and father to Sonia, who has brought his much younger and very pretty wife Ella (Julie Layton) with him.
Almost immediately, sides are drawn up—half of them want to sleep with Ella and take her away from her loquacious husband, and the other half resent her for her beauty. For her part, Ella suffers these fools generally well, while not being completely honest herself about what it is she wants in life.
They play a sort of round-robin game with one another, this one is in love with that one, that one hates this other’s guts, the other longs for what she knows she’ll never get, and she can’t stop feeding her own fantasy at the expense of her fragile reality. Around and around it goes, until the Professor finally explains why he’s returned to the home of the wife he left behind so many years ago, and then things get rather dangerous in a hurry.
Without having read Chekhov’s original play, it seems pretty clear that Posner probably hasn’t strayed too very far from the inspiration for “Life Sucks” while injecting it with his own sensibilities regarding love, loss and longing.
Director Edward Coffield gives his actors room to explore their characters, particularly in physical ways: Cummings stumbles to the floor in a drunken attempt to remove his ripped pants so Sonia can fix them. Harris tumbles around the yard, passes out behind the trellis, half topples off of the swing, providing plenty of physical comedy for a character at the metaphysical end of his rope. His facial expressions and gestures were fantastic throughout the performance.
Hand was hilariously odd as Pickles, and you’ll root for her from the moment you meet her, even if her character arc is a bit on the periphery. Meyer was perfect as the wise maternal figure that might drink a little more than she should but knows a lot more than the people around her suspect. Her comedic timing for delivering her lines at the exact right moment and in the exact right way to achieve maximum effect was marvelous.
Keating and Layton made for an interesting dynamic, as their characters explored the pitfalls of external beauty and the difficulty of exhibiting one’s internal beauty. Katy brought Sonia a sense of hopefulness that many of the others didn’t share, even if it wasn’t the healthiest thing for her psyche.
Johnston, a lion of a man who roared in the recent — and brilliant – NJT production “New Jerusalem,” is an artful antagonist who manages to give his conniving Professor just enough humanity to make him at least a little sympathetic. It can’t be easy to project a superiority complex borne of physical inferiorities, but he pulls it off capably. Any time Johnston is in your Playbill you are in for a treat, and the rest of this cast is equally compelling.
“Life Sucks” runs May 23 – June 10 at The New Jewish Theatre, located at 2 Millstone Campus Dr, St. Louis, near the intersection of N. Lindbergh Blvd and Schuetz Rd. For more information about this show or their upcoming 22nd season, please visit www.newjewishtheatre.org or call (3214) 442-3283.
Photo by Eric Woolsey