By Tulis McCall
I must be on a run here. Life Sucks is the second play I have seen in the space of a week that reminded me why I am crazy about the theatre. The other being Toni Stone at Roundabout. Two more different productions you cannot find, but the idea of them chuffing along, so close in proximity, in the same time slots, does wonders for the spirit. It simply HAS to make the world a better place.
Back to the matter at hand. Life Sucks has transferred from its sold-out run at The Wild Project uptown to Theatre Row. The story is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but the characters have had the sawdust in their veins replaced with real blood. No languorous sighs whilst gazing out the window at the lonesome lot life has bestowed on their sorry asses. No sitting around waiting for someone to ask if they are hungry, or thirsty, or just plain sad. No, no, no. These characters know exactly where they are: in front of us. And they know exactly what they are here to do: defend their point of view with whatever means are at their disposal. They will sneak about, they will solopsize, they will step on each other’s toes or even lines to get our attention.
These characters have been distilled down to their essences. Somewhere in wherever-land, a professor (Austin Pendleton) and his much younger wife Ella (Nadia Bowers) visit the country home that once belonged to him and his first wife. Actually, it was hers, and now belongs to his daughter Sonia (Kimberly Chatterjee). The professor and Ella have, however, been living off the slim profits the estate provided – until now. Hence the unscheduled visit. Vanya (Kevin Isola) the professor’s old brother-in-law lives and works on the estate where everyone is, in general, not very happy. The local doctor Aster (Michael Schantz) is a fixture when he is not out tending to the health of the immediate world. He is a more devoted fixture since the arrival of the Professor and Ella. Aster is besotted with her – and, whoops, so is Vanya. Meanwhile, Sonia’s devotion to the doctor goes unnoticed and unrequited. Completing this menagerie are Pickles (Stacey Linnartz) and Babs (Barbara Kingsley). The former is on the young side, in mourning for her girlfriend who dumped her many moons ago. The latter is on the mature side, elegant and gracefully leaning into the future with many a memory in her rucksack.
Over the space of two hours that seem much shorter, these people slide in and out of each other’s lives. They are like amusement park features. Bumper cars one minute. Roller coasters the next minute. Carousels, Tilt-A-Whirls and of course the House of Mirrors.
More than anything these people are mirrors. Each will confront another with this factoid. Each will deny it. On and on. Forked tongue. Desperate lunges to grab what is out of reach. Nearly fatal attempts to be heard. There are Hairpin turns of emotion and logic that send the audience skittering round the bend and back.
Pay attention, my chums. This is not a spectator sport kind of event. The characters look us in the eye right from the beginning to tell us we are free to stay or go. If we stay, it will be an evening of love, longing and loss. What they don’t tell us is that peppered between those layers are bursts of brilliance, belly laughs that sound like barks (that would be our contribution), and moves that would put a three-card-monty master to shame.
The writing, directing and acting combine to produce a little slice of heaven, which, if you think about it, contradicts the entire premise of the play. Go figure. Then grab yourself a ticket.
Life Sucks. by Aaron Posner; Directed by Jeff Wise
WITH Kevin Isola as Vanya, Nadia Bowers as Ella, Kimberly Chatterjee as Sonia, Barbara Kingsley as Babs, Stacey Linnartz as Pickles, Tony Award nominee Austin Pendleton as The Professor, and Michael Schantz as Dr. Aster
Set design by Brittany Vasta, costume design by Christopher Metzger, lighting design by Drew Florida, sound design by Mark Van Hare, and prop design by Deb Gaouette. The
is now in performances at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) for fourteen-week limited engagement through Sunday, September 1. Tickets for the Off-Broadway production are now available by calling Telecharge at 800-447-7400, online at www.telecharge.com or in person at the Theatre Row box office.
NB: Each day starting one hour prior to curtain, a limited amount of $29 general rush tickets will be available for purchase at the box office. Rush tickets are subject to availability and can be purchased with cash or credit card. There is a limit of two rush tickets per person, and rush seating locations will be determined by the Box Office.
Running time: a brisk 2 hours and 10 minutes