Conventional boundaries between characters, the actors who play them, and the audiences who watch them, are being redrawn this off-Broadway season. Heidi Schreck begins her autobiographical What the Constitution Means to Me as a fairly straightforward recollection of her years winning VFW political debates and then deliberately (and to the play’s detriment) pulls the wheels off by stripping her costar of his character and ending the show with a partially scripted disputation and audience vote. Nassim touches and amuses as its playwright guides an unrehearsed guest star via written prompts. Breaking the fourth wall as well is Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks, a riff on Uncle Vanya where a grumpy septet of actors become the denizens of Chekhov’s cruel universe.
After some “hey audience”-type remarks to start the production, the thesps jump into the longings and complaints of their Russian roles. There’s Vanya (Jeff Biehl), bald and embittered, infatuated with willowy Ella (Nadia Bowers) and therefore loathing her husband (Austin Pendleton), a professor whose pedantry is matched only by his self-loathing. His daughter Sonya (Kimberly Chatterjee) has eyes for the lanky local doctor (Michael Schantz), which is problematic because he, like Vanya, finds himself inexorably drawn to Ella. Also fascinated by the Professor’s wife is family friend Pickles (Stacey Linnartz), a semi-ditzy lesbian still grieving a past relationship. Add in Vanya’s mother (Barbara Kingsley), who turns out to be the doctor’s first conquest, and you have the makings of some seriously unhappy family gatherings.
For all the modern language and anachronistic references, author Posner and director Jeff Wise bring two ideas to the fore. One is making the subtext the show. This is not a play where characters hide their feelings. Instead, in monologues and arguments, they say exactly what’s on their minds at all times, which makes the throughlines easy to follow, if exhausting. Secondly, the folks of Life Sucks are brutally self-aware in terms of their physical attractiveness (or lack thereof), even as they move aimlessly, fruitlessly, through other aspects of their lives. Their gropings and mopings mirror those in Chekhov’s play but still feel weirdly disconnected from any time and place, be it rural Russia or New York’s Lower East Side (where Wheelhouse Theater is staging Life Sucks at The Wild Project).
Why we needed a half-formed adaptation of Uncle Vanya to grasp these themes remains the question. The characters’ interrelationships aren’t even explained until halfway through the first act – which is likely to leave any newbies to the source material at sea. So despite pithy exchanges and some uncomfortably honest emotions, the whole of the piece fails to engage as anything deeper than a writing and acting exercise.
Though I never caught Posner’s earlier Seagull-based Stupid Fucking Bird, my first encounter with Uncle Vanya was the intimate and fourth-wall-breaking Louis Malle film, Vanya on 42nd Street, and my first Seagull was a credible off-Broadway update set in the Hamptons, so I’m not averse to playing fast and loose with classic plays that get plenty of traditional stagings. Still, it behooves us to remember that, great as Bertolt Brecht could be, he succeeded best when he concentrated on the travails of one world instead of tugging us in and out of two.
(Staged by Jeff Wise for Wheelhouse Theater Company, Life Sucks opened March 27, 2019 and runs through April 20, 2019 at off-Broadway’s The Wild Project.)