Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The program tells us that Life Sucks is "sort of adopted from Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov." Well, that is true. Several characters in both plays have the same or similar names–both sport a Vanya at the center of the storm, with a character most often referred to as the Professor as his nemesis. Posner's play has a Sonia, Ella, and Dr. Aster as counterparts to Chekhov's Sonya, Yelena, and Dr. Astrov. Posner replaced several supporting characters from Uncle Vanya with two characters that are awash with eccentricities. Babs (her given name is Bathsheba, but Babs is so much better in this context) is a free-spirited artist who sends forth keen observations on the foibles of those around her, each a cocktail of wisdom, sarcasm and affection. Pickles–also not her given name–is a kooky, lesbian, cockeyed optimist.
The time is updated from Chekhov's late 19th century to the near-present, with references to Ted Cruz, Lena Dunham and Google confirming that shift. Still, the basic set-up is the same, as characters pine over unrequited loves amid the ennui of the rich living empty lives and straining to keep their inherited wealth from slipping away. Vanya lives with his niece, Sonia, whose late mother was his sister. They have remained on the family estate, working its farm to eke out their livelihood, though the trappings harken back to a more gentile past. Vanya's dearest friend, Dr. Aster, claims to be a workaholic, though to us he is a heavy drinker spending a great deal of time vacantly at Vanya and Sonia's place.
The great upheaval in their lives is a visit by the Professor, who is Sonia's father, though he left the estate when his wife died and is now on his third wife, the beautiful and much younger Ella. Sonia and her father are not in any way close, and his pomposity as a professor of semiotics who drops Latin phrases about like used Kleenex, is the object of Vanya's scorn. Ella, on the other hand, is the object of Vanya's ardent desire. Sonia compulsively cleans house while speaking of herself with self-deprecation, all the while harboring intense love for Dr. Aster, along with a belief that she could free him of his disaffection from life. Dr. Aster is oblivious to Sonia's feelings, as he too is enamored with Ella. For her part, Ella wants to be left alone by all of them–including her husband. When the Professor reveals his true reason for visiting the estate, Vanya strikes out in rage, bringing things to a head. A head, yes, but not quite a resolution; resolutions don't seem to be in the cards for the likes of this crew.
Despite many plot similarities, it would be hard to mistake one play for the other. Uncle Vanya is, in its way, a comedy, but the humor comes with a price, the failure of people to attain happiness, even with the advantages life has dealt to them. Life Sucks is far funnier, a straight out comedy, though not without something on its mind. Posner's script is hilarious, even as characters wail about the wretchedness of their lives. The dialogue is bracingly direct, starting with an opening in which all of the characters welcome the audience and warn us that the play is about love, longing, loss, and "how disastrously, irretrievably fucked up the world is, and the insanity of the choices we humans have made for the past four hundred years" (Dr. Aster's contribution). They go on to suggest that those in the audience who hadn't bargained for such downbeat fare are welcome to leave, with a full refund–they even offer a suggestion of an alternative entertainment those patrons might find more suitable. How giddy an opening is that? It sets a tone that lasts through to the finale.
Joel Sass directs Life Sucks and endows it with a galloping energy and repeated surprises so that through the play's two acts there is never a moment's lapse in the pulse of the narrative, or let-up in the merriment that provides a veneer to keep the anguish felt by Vanya, Aster, and Sonia at bay. Yes, Open Eye's stage is quite small, but somehow Sass, who also designed the set, makes it more than ample space for the seven characters and their interlocking pursuits. Claire Looker's costumes go a long way toward depicting each character's persona. Vanya wears a gaudy floral shirt, shorts, socks up to his knees, and sandals–a total dweeb–while his urbane friend Aster sports slim-fitting jeans, turned at the cuffs, trendy footwear, and an attractive plaid shirt. Sonia's drab apparel reenforces her self-image of being irredeemably plain and undesirable, while Ella's brings out the appeal that is her vexation.
And oh, what a cast! Sam Landsman sits at the center as Vanya, using his expressive eyes and hang-dog bearing to remarkable effect, slouching his way through heartbreak and meltdown. Elizabeth Efteland's performance as Sonia fully embodies the timidity that is her life-long curse, while expressing kindness to those for whom she cares. Jonathan Feld makes for a swell Dr. Aster, exhibiting the tics and neurosis that plague men of our time, yet one senses his sincerity and aches for his disappointment. Georgia Doolittle, whose work I have not seen before, is mesmerizing as Ella, emitting the sensuality that drives Vanya and Aster wild, conveying a genuine warmth in her efforts to reach out to Sonia, and refreshingly brash in demanding to know why these men think she's so hot.
As the Professor, James Ramlet has only to release his sonorous deep voice and raise his large frame to full height to be convincingly pompous. Kirby Bennett, as Babs, blends a devil-may-care breeziness with sharp and compassionate insights into the foibles of the other characters, while Taj Ruler's depiction of Pickles lets us see that she has several screws loose, yet a hopeful and loving essence that, despite being daft, makes her the beating heart of the play.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Uncle Vanya and Life Sucks is that, in Chekhov's conception, it turns out that for his characters, well, life does suck. They may learn to resign themselves to their lot, to accept modest and fleeting pleasures when great happiness proves untenable, but it is not a particularly joyful resolve. Posner has constructed the ending of his play with a twist that allows for, even insists upon, the possibility of overcoming the play's defeatist title and recognizing pathways to joy.
Life Sucks isn't the only play Posner has written using Chekhov as his muse. He has written Stupid Fucking Bird as a re-thinking of The Seagull, and No Sisters as a companion piece to Chekhov's Three Sisters. If they are near as good as Life Sucks, I eagerly await the opportunity to see them. For now, I am extremely pleased to have encountered his work in this winning co-production of Life Sucks, a great success by any measure.
Life Sucks, runs through November 12, 2023, at Open Eye Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6368.
Playwright: Aaron Posner; Director and Set Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Claire Looker; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Intimacy and Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Technical Director: Brandon Sisneroz; Stage Manager: Penny Laden Kissinger; Producers: Kirby Bennett and Joel Sass.
Cast: Kirby Bennett (Babs), Georgia Doolittle (Ella), Elizabeth Efteland (Sonia), Jonathan Field (Dr. Aster), Sam Landman (Vanya), Jim Ramlet (The Professor), Taj Ruler (Pickles).