“This isn’t your Grandmother’s Chekhov. If you are looking for the samovar…” John Lescault was describing the new play, Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous) by Aaron Posner, currently in previews at Theater J. Cast-mate Naomi Jacobson picked up the thread: “This is not really an adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Uncle Vanya has been used as a jumping off point.”
Jacobson continued: “John is playing the Professor role, now called Robbie. He is an Art Professor in Chekhov. Here, he is a Professor of Semiotics, married to Ella, who is Yelena in Chekhov’s play. Sonya and Vanya are the same. My character is an amalgam of two of the older women in the play, Marina [Sonya’s nurse] and Vanya’s mother [Maria] but she’s not really like them. She not really anyone in Vanya. She’s Sonya’s mother’s best friend from college, who has been living on the compound since before Sonya was born. She’s a friend of the family. She became ‘Auntie.’ She’s an artist — a potter, a ceramic artist.”
Lescault pointed out that the full subtitle reads An Irreverent Variation On Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. “He took the themes of Vanya and went from there — life, love, longing — it’s an examination of those themes,” Jacobson added. “He’s not serving Chekhov, but subverting or perverting or loving the deconstructing of him,” Lescault continued. “It hasn’t helped me to go back to Vanya at all,” Jacobson said. “It’s good to have in my mind, to have read, then I let it go. This is Aaron’s play, it’s not Vanya.”
I asked if the play would appeal to devotees of Chekhov, to those who’ve never gotten into Chekhov, or to both. “Both, absolutely,” Jacobson responded immediately. “Oh, God. People who don’t like Chekhov? I would love to invite those people. After seeing this — it’s so present and immediate and modern — they will so immediately connect to it, that they could then see a production of Chekhov and get way more out of it. He [Posner] has really made the connections between the heart and the soul. There’s nothing stuffy or old-fashioned about it.” Lescault concurred: “You don’t need to know Uncle Vanya to enjoy this.”
Jacobson speculated that “a Chekhov purist could get huffy about it, but it isn’t a production of Uncle Vanya. It’s like after a symphony orchestra plays classical music and then you hear a rock band do it.” Of course, the fact that it’s called Life Sucks might alert the purists that they aren’t in for a museum piece. “He’s been smart about the title. It tells people immediately what they are in for,” Jacobson concurred.
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“That’s what so great about him,” Jacobson continued in reference to Posner. “He’s so collaborative. We were asked to bring ourselves to the work. If something didn’t feel right, he would take that into account. If he had a different cast, the changes would have been different. We weren’t a huge influence, but he was present in the room with this group of people. The play could be cast completely differently. My character could be interpreted in a different way with a different woman.”
Lescault spoke of the special experience of working on the first production of a play. “It’s very exciting. I always enjoy, most often, being in the birthing room, seeing the changes responding to what we’re doing, that spark of creativity. To be there — there’s nothing better. It’s why I do this.” I asked if either had worked with Posner before. “It’s the first time for both,” Jacobson said. “And hopefully not the last,” Lescault added.
The praise for the Life Sucks team continued as Jacobson extolled Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt: “She’s been so collaborative. She asked us to bring in something from our closets, and every idea, every single idea has been incorporated into the design. That’s really unique and wonderful for an actor. I want to give a shout-out to her.” Lescault touted the contributions of the entire team, taking special note of Set Designer Meghan Raham’s contribution: “Just beautiful.”
“The play is really interactive with the audience,” Jacobson said. “That’s another piece we haven’t figured out yet, and won’t until the audience is there.” “Vanya will be asking questions of the audience,” Lescault clarified. “It’s an adventure,” Jacobson added.
I first saw Jacobson in Dream of a Common Language at Theatre of the First Amendment in the early 90s, about the same time I first saw Lescault in Dog Plays at Potomac Theatre Project. Knowing that their involvement with theatre in DC, and with each other, pre-dated that time, I asked when they had met. The answer involved New Playwrights Theatre, which focused on new work produced at the space that, after the company disbanded, became Church Street Theatre and is now Keegan Theatre.
This was 1987. “Neither of us was acting,” Jacobson explained. Lescault was working as a stage manager. Jacobson was doing just about everything else: “Casting, literary management. If the bathroom flooded…you know, you kind of do everything if there’s a staff of seven.”
Both laughed remembering that each was skeptical about the other’s acting ability, Jacobson wondering, “If he’s such a wonderful actor, what’s he doing as a stage manager?” And Lescault sized up an actor who came to Washington from L.A. thusly: “Come on!” Each eventually realized the thespian talents of the other. (Jacobson: “Oh! You really are an actor!”) They celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in November.
Jacobson was on her way from L.A. not to D.C. but to N.Y.C. “I first came from L.A. on my way to New York. I had hated L.A.” (Describing the City of Angels as “an illusion,” she told me of a particularly unusual side job: bartender in the green room when Joan Rivers had her late-night talk show.) Jacobson had worked previously with Peter Frisch, who had taken the reigns of New Playwrights from founder Harry Bagdasian. (The name had also shifted to American Playwrights Theatre.) “I thought it would be an interesting adventure for a year.”
But she hadn’t intended to stay here long. “I had a sublet in New York. I had agents. Then I met John, who really didn’t want to go to New York. I was torn. Love doesn’t come along all that often. Do I go to New York and pursue my dream, or do I stay and give this a chance? It was so special, I decided I’d give it a couple of years and see if I could make it work here.” Her timing was good. As Lescault put it, at about that time, “the scene started to change. The rise of the performing arts scene made it possible to stay. That dovetailed nicely, and we were able to stay.”
Not that it was easy or quick: “I already had my Equity card, so I couldn’t go to Source. I was really worried. Then Howard [Shalwitz] saw me and invited me into Woolly [Mammoth, the theatre Shalwitz leads]. DC seemed to be working. I left my other ambitions. I was doing shows at Woolly, Shakespeare Theatre, jobs people in New York were vying to get. Here, I was a known entity. This city has gone in an interesting direction. It’s not Podunk. It’s a gold pot of a place. There are phenomenal artists here, not second rate at all. Who do I get to work with? I’m working with really first-rate people.”
Including, of course, her husband. How many shows have they done together? “I’ve lost count,” Lescault admitted. “It’s over twelve and under twenty, if you add the times we’ve been in the same cast but not sharing a scene.” Jacobson elaborated: “We’ve been in the same play at Shakespeare Theatre four or five times but never talked to each other on-stage.” Back in ’92, he was her on-stage boyfriend, while he was her off-stage boyfriend, Lescault remembered. “We’ve played lovers. We were married in a play right before we got married.” Jacobson mentioned a production in which her off-stage husband played her on-stage father. “One of those plays,” Lescault added, enigmatically.
They were together last season at Round House Theatre in The Lyons, and were both in the Richard II–Henry V rep at Shakespeare Theatre Company a few years ago. “Our paths never crossed on-stage, but it was great that we got to spend five months together.” They will be back again at Theater J when both are in DC playwright Renee Calarco’s G-d’s Honest Truth, beginning March 18th.
Lescault mentioned a particularly “meta” moment in Life Sucks, when he begins a line to Jacobson’s character with the words, “My Wife.” “I’m talking about my [fictional] wife to my [actual] wife.” Jacobson quipped: “As he gets older, John is married to younger women. I’m in my crone stage, but he’s still sort of dashing.”
So if they were approached by a theater that wanted to showcase them, do they have a dream project they’d love to tackle? Lescault’s response was immediate: “The Waltz of the Toreadors,” referring to the play by Jean Anouilh that, I believe, hasn’t been seen in town since Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson brought it to Kennedy Center in that institution’s very early days. “Oh, that’s a great play, a wonderful play,” Jacobson responded before asking Lescault what the name was of a two-character play they both like. It’s also a French play, called Marie, a name common enough that a Google search didn’t yield me the name of the writer or any other information about it.
Theater J has, to put it mildly, been in the news a lot recently, so I had to ask how L’Affair Ari, which broke just as Life Sucks was getting started, has affected the process. “Interestingly,” Jacobson responded, “in the rehearsal room, it hasn’t really affected much. Ari [Roth, recently dismissed as Artistic Director of Theater J] was with us the first day and has been very supportive of the play that he chose. Aaron and Ari have a good relationship.”
“We were very much aware of it, but the primary focus has been the production of Life Sucks,” Lescault said. “Our great concern is for Ari’s future. And for the future of Theater J.”
Opening night for Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous) is Monday, January 19th.