I’m head-over-heels in love with this play. We all know the pain of age or overwork or of desperately loving someone with whom you could never share a kiss. It aches and it sucks. But all that aching and sucking is what makes you feel alive, and the unfulfilled longing that you feel so deeply lets you know that your feelings run that deep.
That’s what’s at stake in Aaron Posner’s world premiere play, Life Sucks [or the Present Ridiculous] at Theater J.
Posner’s quippy description calls Life Sucks an “irreverent variation on Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya,” and, to be sure, the play is irreverent in the sense that characters say “shit” and, on one occasion, ask if any audience members would like to have sex with them. And the play is irreverent in the sense that Posner isn’t slavishly devoted to Vanya. It is easy to enjoy without knowing of Chekhov’s original and anyone can appreciate the jokes. But two fantastic things that Posner keeps from Chekhov are an exquisite mix of tragedy and comedy and a great sense of detail. Pay attention to lines that seem like throwaways; they actually contain keys to understanding the complexities of the characters.
The setting borrows the broad brushstrokes from Uncle Vanya – a country house, represented by a gorgeous wooden set by designer Meghan Raham, who creates many levels of depth and height on the stage, giving Posner (who is the director as well) and the actors a huge variety of playing spaces. The time is updated though, leaving costume designer Kelsey Hunt’s work relatively comfy and very modern. The language of Posner’s script reflects the update, not only replacing references to Dostoyevsky with more contemporary fare, but also keeping the play organic and conversational.
The characters of Life Sucks are inspired by Chekhov’s originals: John Lescault plays the old Professor with delightful pomposity and grasping desperation as a domineering old man, self-obsessed with fading age and devoted to intellectual condescension to mask it. His younger wife, Ella, played by DC newcomer Monica West, has a sharp wit, a sharp tongue, and a magnetism that draws an entire room to her.
They are visiting the house, which may or may not actually be their house, occupied by a motley crew of tenants. Sonia (played earnestly and lovably by Judith Ingber), the Professor’s daughter from his first marriage, lives in the house year-round, pining after her neighbor Astor, a (sometimes) drunken doctor, (Eric Hissom.) The Professor describes Astor as a man “in all his receding glory,” and Hissom fits snugly into that role as a world-weary silver fox. Sonia lives with her older female role model, Babs, played by Naomi Jacobson who breaks out a great combination of frisky and world-wise for this role.
Also staying there is Pickles, who is a bit slower on the uptake than the others. Kimberly Gilbert plays Pickles with perfect honesty. She takes the role that could resemble eye-rolling Oscar bait (think Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man or the more recent example of Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything) and creates a complex character defined by her passions and hope rather than her quirks.
The only character not yet mentioned is Sonia’s uncle Vanya, the caretaker of the country house. Sasha Olinick gives Vanya a shabby sad-sack vibe that never gets burdensome and always draws laughs easily from the audience. He (and nearly every other character in the play) is smitten with Ella, and his pathetic attempts to woo her typify “Nice Guy Syndrome.”
He distinguishes himself by virtue of being one of the few characters that actually does anything, even though the things he does are destructive. The Professor pontificates, Ella armors herself against unwanted affection, Sonia whines about her unrequited love, Babs gives common sense advice, Astor talks a lot about working, but Vanya acts on his aggression toward the Professor and takes (albeit inadvisable) steps toward ending the suckiness of his life.
Jan 14 – Feb 15
DC Jewish Community Center
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $65
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202-777-3210
Each character gets their time in the spotlight or, more correctly for this play, in the house lights. There are moments in Life Sucks, especially in moments of greatest frustration, when the house lights come up and the actors speak directly to the audience, asking questions, expecting answers.
Sometimes they get them. The actors use these moments to be truly raw and vulnerable with the audience, in a way that they could never be with each other.Those moments drew me in, mesmerized me, and showed me a bit of life, real life, onstage. That life was beautiful.
That life, in the words of Pickles, “does not suck.” And neither does this play. In fact, it’s wonderful.
Life Sucks [or the Present Ridiculous] written and directed by Aaron Posner . Featuring Kimberly Gilbert, Eric Hissom, Judith Ingber, Naomi Jacobson, John Lescault, Sasha Olinick and Monica West . Set design: Meghan Raham, Lighting design: Nancy Schertler . Costume design: Kelsey Hunt . Properties: Samina Vieth . Stage Manager: Roy A Gross . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Alan Katz.