Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
I didn't expect to like this play. Posner made a name for himself with Stupid Fucking Bird, his updating of The Seagull. I assumed he was just piggybacking on that success when he went back to the Chekhov mine to dig up Uncle Vanya and turn that into Life Sucks because he had no other original ideas to work on. Even if that is the case, Life Sucks is a good play in its own right. It retains some of the trademark Chekhov melancholia, but it's also remarkably funny–laugh-out-loud funny. And you don't need to know anything about the Chekhov original to enjoy Posner's take on it.
The play is ostentatiously meta-theatrical, especially at the beginning, which was probably influenced by the movie Vanya on 42nd Street. The actors tell us that they're actors putting on a play that is based on Uncle Vanya. Some of the characters have the same name as their precursors (Vanya, Sonia), but you won't find a Babs or a Pickles anywhere in Chekhov. This is Chekhov for present-day America.
Over the course of the play, each actor delivers a monologue directly to the audience. It's almost like an opera in which every character gets their aria. It gets a little precious when actors ask questions directly to the audience, on the order of "Who here wants to sleep with me?," but these scenes are minor nuisances. Overall, the "fourth wall breaking" is clever and not overdone.
The plot, if you can call it that, is straight out of Chekhov. Vanya and his niece Sonia are living on and managing an estate in the countryside that was owned by Sonia's mother, who died young. A frequent visitor is the local doctor Aster, with whom Sonia is desperately in love, despite his being considerably older than she is. Babs and Pickles are also living on the estate, and I'm not sure why. Babs was Sonia's mother's best friend, came to take care of her during her terminal illness, and just never left, even though it was years ago. And who is the old lady Pickles? An impoverished cousin, perhaps.
Sonia's father is a university professor of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and how we give them meaning. He speaks in that highfalutin academic jargon that makes you wonder if there's any there there. The Professor is now on his third, much younger, attractive wife. Ella was one of his students who was seduced by what appeared to be his brilliant intellect. The marriage is no longer a happy one, if it ever was, but they are still together.
They have come from the big city to stay at the estate for an indefinite period of time because, as we find out, they are tapped out financially. The Professor feels he has a claim to the estate because it became his property when his wife died. Vanya says the estate belongs to Sonia, the only child. In Chekhov's play, it's made clear that the estate was a dowry, but dowries don't hold any legal standing in modern America.
So we have a classic Chekhovian roundelay of unrequited affection, in which Sonia loves Aster, Aster loves Ella, Ella is attracted to Aster, and Vanya loves Ella too, but ... well, poor Uncle Vanya. Chekhov was the meistersinger of frustrated, disheartened, despairing souls, and Posner does a fine job of depicting them too–but with a lot more comedy.
This production, directed by Frederick Ponzlov, is well cast. Ponzlov himself is the Professor. With his shoulder-length white hair and plummy voice, he's the embodiment of the emeritus academic who finally has to cope with the world outside of the ivory tower. Caitlin Kelly as Sonia is luminous in her persistent sadness. The role of Vanya is a rather thankless one. He mostly mopes around or gets mad. Jim Gulliford does a good job playing him, but I would have liked to see a little more demonstration of the heartbreak that Vanya must endure.
Kathleen Welker has some touching moments as the worldly-wise and constantly imbibing Babs, and it's great to see the ageless Teddy Eggleston make the role of Pickles her own. Merritt C. Glover is fine as Ella, portraying her as more than just an object of desire, and Mark Hisler does equally good work as Aster. The set by Tim Wilkins is minimal, just some hanging fabric to suggest a forest and one multicolored table out in front, but it works fine in this small theater.
Ponzlov's direction keeps the conversations moving along, no longueurs. The characters keep asking themselves if life sucks, but it definitely doesn't suck when you can have a good time seeing a good play with good actors in an intimate theater, and all of it in real life.
Life Sucks runs through April 24, 2022, presented by Actors Studio 66, at the Black Cat Cultural Center, 3011 Monte Vista Blvd NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00. Tickets at $20; Thursday 4/14 is pay what you will. For tickets and information, please visit www.actorsstudio66.org.