LIFE SUCKS by Aaron Posner, sort of adapted from UNCLE VANYA by Anton Chekhov, directed by Jeff Wise opened June 16th, 2019 at The Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row on 42nd St between 9th Ave. and Dyer Ave presented by Wheelhouse Theater Company, for an Extended Run through September of 2019. It features: NADIA BOWERS, KIMBERLY CHATTERJEE, KEVIN ISOLA, BARBARA KINGSLEY,STACEY LINNARTZ, AUSTIN PENDLETON,and MICHAEL SCHANTZ.
LIFE SUCKS, or DOES IT?: Such is the question posed by Mr. Posner to whatever audience happens to show up to each performance of this retelling of one of Chekhov’s most popular and frequently adapted plays, “Uncle Vanya”. And when I state that this question is put forth to the audience, I mean directly, out loud, and I believe with a sincerity as overt as the unabashed theatricality this adaptation and fluid staging by Mr. Wise who also happens to be the Artistic Director of this producing organization, Wheelhouse Theater Company.
They first presented this play earlier in Manhattan, this past April in a 3rd Street venue downtown, and it became a Critic’s Pick for a number of publications. That sparked the transfer to midtown and an extended Off Broadway run on 42nd St. which they hope shall exceed the summer and beyond.
That it indeed should , I’m glad to report is due to the handsome ensemble delivering Posner’s retelling of Chekhov’s social study of the privileged class whose unfulfilled desires create a constant round of wishing the unattainable from each other and themselves, while ignoring what should be their self evident blessings. What can seem so unappealing in such a collection of characters is mitigated by Chekhov’s insights to what is innately human, and now with Posner’s underscoring of virtually every conversation taking place among the characters. Each gets at least one crack at crackerjack soliloquies, and sometimes, for some. more !
Personally, I found utilizing this more Elizabethan/ Classic storytelling device of not disguising the (hopefully) attent ears in front of them a freeing aspect in this even more modern and indeed American iteration of Vanya’s family and friends who are dwelling on the estate at the time of the curtain. It so begins at the get-go with the ensemble lined up facing the audience and addressing them with gratitude for showing up, what this play will be about, and the entreaty that should this not sound like the attendees cup of tea, to please swiftly exit, get their money back, and see if they can still catch,”TOOTSIE”, or something equally light-hearted in happy time. Nobody in the the Saturday matinee I attended took them up on that offer, yet I wonder if anyone has as yet?
Were they to do so, those show shoppers would be missing an expert ensemble revealing their characters psyches with soul crushing earnestness and no weak links in this seven member cast, all of whom deserve shout out praise. As they are listed in the program in alphabetical order, I shall do so with warranted appreciation.
Nadia Bowers as Ella was bewitching even more in her character’s vulnerability and unflinching quest to find what will give her fulfillment, as is her obvious lovely features and undeniably sensual allure. Young Kimberly Chatterjee’s Sonia was funny, brilliant, simultaneously innocent and more mature than most of the family, while heartbreaking in her character’s familiar desire to be desired as a woman, particularly by the home’s most frequent visitor. Kevin Isola plays Vanya and although his character famously misses the mark at what he aims at during the course of the play, Mr. Isola remains on target with the demands of the part and unfolding of the narration. Barbara Kingsley provides the experiential knowledge of Babs along with similar skills from Ms. Kingley’s portrayal of her. Stacey Linnartz is rather adorable as Pickles whose alternate lifestyle fits in perfectly with the encumbered with angst family. The redoubtable Austin Pendleton continues to amaze audiences familiar with his more than five decades career and his infinite store of thespic devices that effortlessly holds the audience in his hand and allows him to play lovingly with them via one surprise after another. Michael Schantz delivers the Dr. Aster in this version with the warmth and honesty of a member of his profession from the days of William Carlos Williams when making house calls by horse and buggy in between penning his poems.
Yes, theater-goer, this one’s worth the time and the journey to Theatre Row’s Acorn to hear and behold this refreshing retelling of a modern masterpiece by a brilliant ensemble.
When, at the play’s conclusion, they beg the question of the audience members:”Does Life Suck?”, one from the house ventured that indeed it did….some: “yes, but not always”.
I wanted to, but did not have the chance to offer my perspective, and that which I believe the good doctor, Anton Chekhov had in mind all along: namely, that, Life LIVES!
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Photo credit: Russ Rowland