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Life Sucks
by Aaron Posner, adapted from Anton Chekhov
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 23, 2018

Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris, Jeff Cummings
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Life Sucks is the title of New Jewish Theatre’s latest production. It’s also the most uttered line in the play. It’s a phrase that inspires much pondering, arguing, and philosophizing among the characters in playwright Aaron Posner’s re-imagined, modernized version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. As staged at NJT, it also provides an excellent showcase for some excellent local performers.

The story here is essentially a fourth-wall breaking, sort of but not always linear version of the Uncle Vanya story, but with more of an emphasis on broad comedy with focus on the characters’ internal conflicts more than on the actual plot. In fact, at least one key plot point of Chekhov’s Vanya is essentially treated as a throwaway element in this play. Here, the characters talk to the audience and try to work out their various existential crises. The characters are also modified to varying degrees from Chekhov, with some having different names. It’s essentially a series of vignettes and confrontations, with occasional moments of the whole cast assembling to speak to the audience or to a particular character. Sonia (Katy Keating) outlines the relationships. Vanya (Christopher Harris) is her uncle, and Babs (Jan Meyer) is sort of her aunt, and the three live together in what was Sonia’s mother’s house. Sonia’s father, The Professor (Greg Johnston) is an aging, self-important academic who rarely visits and is insecure in his relationship to his third wife, Ella (Julie Layton). Ella, for her part, is boggled by the fact that almost everyone in the play seems to be in love with her, especially Vanya and his old friend Dr. Aster (Jeff Cummings), with whom Sonia has long been enamored. There’s also Pickles (Michelle Hand), another sort-of aunt who still grieves a long-ended relationship and also is attracted to Ella. The framework plot of Uncle Vanya is here, but its the characters and their views of life, relationships, and their own personal crises that take precedence here, and although there are some poignant moments, it’s essentially a comedy.

The script is engaging, with emphasis on character relationships, fantastical elements, witty dialogue, and a lot of contempory pop culture references.  It’s an intriguing take on the source material, and since character is key here, the casting is also important. All six players here are strong, embodying the archtypes of their characters well. Keating is an especially relatable Sonia, and her relationship with Harris’s emotionally effusive Vanya is especially poignant. The structure of the script is such that all the characters are given moments to shine, from Layton’s excellent reflection on what it’s like to be pursued and idealized by so many people, to Johnston’s reflections on aging, to Hand’s yearning for people to see past her quirks, and more. Cummings, as the amiable but somewhat aimless Aster, and Mayer as the more world-wise Babs are also excellent. The sense of cohesive ensemble chemistry, in fact, is a real highlight of this production.

The production values here are nothing short of stunning. Peter and Margery Spack’s set is colorful, detailed, and whimsical, representing Sonia’s house and backyard in a literal way but also with some more fantastical touches. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, suit the characters well. There’s also excellant evocative, atmospheric lighting by Maureen Berry. Overall, the play seems to take place at once in the “real world” of the characters but also at the same time in their heads and in an “out of time” space, and all the technical elements here help to set and maintain that effect, augmenting the strong performances of the cast.

The questions raised in Life Sucks are ones with which many audience members will relate–questions of identity, relationship, and purpose in life. It’s a clever, sometimes a little pretentious but still witty and entertaining piece with some truly wonderful performances. It’s a memorable way to close out New Jewish Theatre’s 21st season.

Katy Keating, Jeff Cummings, Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris, Greg Johnston, Julie Layton, Michelle Hand
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Life Sucks at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until June 10, 2018.

 

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