Aaron Posner “sort-of adapted” (his description) Chekhov’s revered play Uncle Vanya and called it Life Sucks. There is probably not a writer in the world who doesn’t worship at the Chekhov altar, and this adaptation follows his clever play, Stupid F***ing Bird, his Seagull knockoff, a play that is both melancholy and snarky simultaneously. In this new one, Posner, a major former Philaelphia presence as the co-founder of the Arden Theater Company, has an odd way of showing his admiration.
There are several ways to write a replay: as an updating, as a parody, as a transposition to another time and place, or as a rediscovery by altering racial/gender contexts. But there needs to be a point to the debt. Life Sucks tries for many of these options, but winds up as a self-help talk-show version of this magnificent play, one that requires audience participation in the most cringeworthy of ways, and embarasses itself in the process. Jeff Wise directs with a shamelessly heavy hand, flirting with cute.
Posner follows, more or less, the original plot: Vanya (Kevin Isola) is in love with the beautiful Ella (Nadia Bowers), who is married to the Professor (Austin Pendleton). Vanya’s workaholic friend, Dr. Aster (Michael Schantz), is also crazy about Ella; Vanya’s neice, plain Sonia (Kimberly Chatterjee), is desperately, hopelessly in love with Aster. There are the usual assortment of hangers-on as in any Chekhov play; here Babs (Barbara Kingsley) and Pickles (Stacey Linnartz).
The struggle and debate here is between the optimists (“Life does not suck”) and the pessimists (”Life sucks” ) as people accuse one another of marital fidelity (“morally repugnant”) and have quasi-academic semiotic arguments (the difference between ‘presence” and “presents”). The actors — a cast that might have been good in a good play — are arch and metatheatrical, wearing contemporary clothes and addressing the audience in long, long monologues, but sometimes in short questions: Vanya asks us, “Do you think she likes me?” The audience replies, “No.” And, frankly, neither do we.
And, frankly, that’s the problem. Chekhov created characters who may seem whiney and annoying and aggravatingly helpless, but we pity them as we pity ourselves. We worry about them. We see their side of things. They have depth and anger and sadness, unlike this crew of characters who are shallow and not only bore themselves and each other, but also bore us. They are contemporary in their crass emotions, their crude language, and their ruthless self-interest. All true of our world, perhaps, but why wreck Chekhov in the process of showing us what we already know?