, Aaron Posner's modern reworking of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya
, has an oddly off-putting opening scene. The cast gathers on stage to collectively declaim a hunk of exposition about the nature and content of the play, which is delivered in a "isn't this cute and different" manner. That sense of preciousness resurfaces every time one of the actors explains what the next scene will be about, or asks the audience a question that doesn't really require a response.
The New Jewish Theatre's current production of the play is heavy on the self-pity, to the detriment of everything else. There are brief moments of joy, but too few to save it from a feeling of ponderous negativity that quickly become cloying.
Perhaps the neediness of the first scene is meant to reflect the neediness of the seven characters, all of whom are struggling for something unattainable. Bunched up together in a country house, they talk and yearn and fight and regret. Nobody has what they want and everybody's unhappy.
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Like everyone in Life Sucks, Sonia (Katy Keating) wants what she can't have, in this case Dr. Aster (Jeff Cummings).
Vanya (Christopher Harris) wants the love of his former mentor's wife, Ella (Julie Layton), who doesn't reciprocate his feelings. Ella wants to be happy in her May-December marriage to the Professor (Greg Johnston), but his pompous nature makes him insufferable. Sonia (Katy Keating) wants the love of family friend Dr. Aster (Jeff Cummings), but he wants Ella. Pickles (Michelle Hand) still wants the love of her life, who left years ago. The Professor wants to sell the house and retire. All of them lament to anyone who will listen that "life sucks’; it's said so many times that you suspect Posner either copyrighted it or is worried you didn't catch the title of the show. Only Babs (Jan Meyer) seems content with her lot.
Despite the play’s repetitive nature, some fine moments are on display. Johnston's Professor is so arrogant and grandiloquent that he passes beyond annoying into heights of ridiculousness. Ella and Sonia's discussion — which includes the pitfalls of great beauty and of being homely, as well as how difficult it is to be young and and deeply in love with someone who doesn't notice you exist — is the first moment in the show when someone isn't thinking only of themselves. Ella opens herself up to the younger woman, and Sonia, although not convinced, at least listens to her. It's a little island of compassion and empathy in a show that wallows in unhappiness. And Vanya's bid to murder the Professor is hilarious and sad in equal measure.
But the lasting impression left by Life Sucks
is one of listening to a group of stoned people at a party when you're not high. People talk endlessly about their unhappiness and the unfairness of it all, but nobody's really listening to anybody else. And unlike a crappy party, where you can always pull an Irish goodbye, this is a conversation you can't easily escape.