Life Sucks

Reviewer's Rating

Wheelhouse Theater Company’s production of Aaron Posner’s “Life Sucks,” under the direction of Jeff Wise, is described as “sort of” an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” In fact, the story for the most part hews quite closely to Chekhov, though updated to an unspecified contemporary setting, and with an aggressive and persistent metatheatricality—we are made aware over and over, through direct address (“We’re the actors. And you, of course, are the audience”) and other means, that we are watching a play.

Despite the talent assembled on stage, and some funny, well-timed zingers, what we’re largely presented with is cynical, expletive-laden speechifying about how human relationships are difficult and desire can be frustrating. The intent is, perhaps, to be edgy and profane; the result is crude and superficially clever, and ultimately quite empty.

Before things get started, the performers assemble and mingle on stage: the set is later described by Sonia (Kimberly Chatterjee) as “an odd, impressionistic, deconstructed version of my house” (scenic design by Brittany Vasta). The play begins with the characters lined up at the front of the stage imploring the audience to turn off their phones and so forth, before introducing the play—“Most of it is going to be about love and longing. Yep. That’s right, campers.” Audience members are even urged to leave the theater if the description of things to come doesn’t sound appealing.

Despite this introduction, the play is paused midway through the first half for Sonia to tell us who each person is. Even if one is not familiar with Chekhov’s play, this summary is unnecessary and interrupts any flow the production was beginning to achieve. As do the periodic breaks in which the characters line up at the front of the stage again and rattle off various lists, such as “3 things I hate.” There are also fourth-wall-breaking moments, in which characters ask questions and solicit responses from the audience. For example, Ella (Nadia Bowers), who corresponds to Chekhov’s Yelena, asks who in the audience would like to have sex with her.

The actors are for the most part in top form, including Jeff Biehl’s kvetchy Vanya, Austin Pendleton’s comically pompous Professor (a semiotics expert), Chatterjee’s lovelorn Sonia, and Bowers’s frustrated Ella. But the characters are essentially all the unappealing qualities of their “Vanya” counterparts without any of what makes them endearingly human. Partly responsible for this is the decision to not really have them interact in any realistic way, but rather schematically lay out their foibles and problems and discuss them. The play moves from characters bemoaning the “suckiness” of their quite-privileged lives to others offering trite self-help advice. At times the play seems to be flirting with farce, at other times satire, but it never entirely commits.

The play mistakes cynicism for wit, and vulgarity for irreverence. It offers no real insight into Chekhov or into life. Posner has written several well-received quasi-adaptations, but in “Life Sucks” the playwright’s own voice never breaks through the succession of bromides. Fine acting and a handful of good laugh lines can’t overcome a text that, much like the Professor, seems intent only on proving its own cleverness.