By Myra Chanin
The abundant twists and turns in most narrative arcs ultimately boil down to a series of themes. For example, there’s “boy meets girl,” as in Cinderella; “three men in search of gold” as in Treasure of Sierra Madre; “the craving for power,” as in Macbeth; and my favorite, “the family that destroys itself hiding its secrets,” as in Long Day’s Journey into Night or the subject of this review, Uncle Vanya, in which pretty much every character is an emotionally crippled liar.
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya constantly beckons ambitious playwrights to muck around with its plot. In the past five months alone, just in Manhattan, I’ve seen three variations about misadventures on the Serebryakov/Voynitzky estate. The most recent incarnation, Life Sucks, was “sorta adapted from Chekhov’s original” by Aaron Posner, whose work of similar ilk, Stupid Fucking Bird, inspired by The Seagull, is being performed and lauded not only around the US but even in Estonia.
Life Sucks is a family dramedy. Sonia (Kimberlee Chatterjee) has inherited the family estate from her deceased mother. She and her Uncle Vanya (Jeff Biehl), her mother’s brother, are the long-suffering, hard-working co-managers/administrators of the property. Also living on the estate are Babs (Barbara Kingsley), Vanya’s mother, who is a potter who goes off on trips; and Pickles (Stacey Linnartz), a discombobulated young woman who cannot emotionally let go of her first and only love: a woman who was not true to her vows and left Pickles many years earlier.
The income Sonia and Vanya produce support all of the above as well as Sonia’s father, the Professor (Austin Pendleton). He is their financial burden. He lives with his gorgeous, intelligent, much younger, former student turned wife, Ella (Nadia Bowers) in the city and is paying his somewhat estranged daughter an unexpected visit. All of the above share a high regard for the Professor and have buried their own ambition in order to support and allow him to publish unreadable books.
Dr. Aster, Vanya’s close childhood friend is also on the premises. Unlike everyone else he has occupations he enjoys. He’s attractive, motivated, obsessive compulsive about medicine and also deeply concerned about the future of the world. So why is he hanging around doing nothing but drinking vodka most of the time?
Semi spoiler alerts. The answer is Ella. Both Vanya and Dr. Astor have the hots for her. Sonia, however, is secretly madly in love with the Doctor. The more fool she, if she thinks no one knows. She considers him marrying her to be his salvation because she knows she would be good for him and is certain she can straighten out his life. Oy Vey! Vanya plans to expose his secret self—the real Vanya—to Ella, sure that once she knows the real him, she’ll leave the Professor and marry him.
One might also well ask, why are the Professor and Ella visiting? They owe more money than they can handle and he hopes to snooker Vanya and Sonia into selling the estate so he can pay off their debts and invest the proceeds in a way that will allow Ella and him to live more comfortably . . . and maybe even have enough left over for the others to be able to subsist.
We learn all this very quickly because there is no wall between the characters and the audience. The characters tell their problems, secrets and intentions to the audience and often ask for their advice and opinions which the audience has no problems sharing. One of the interactions between characters and audience happens when they line up on stage and all answer the same question, like listing three things they like best, or later on, three things they like least. Lists and asparagus are mentioned in at least one list.
Do any of these people get what they want? Does anyone ever? At least by the close of the play Vanya admits what he really wants. It’s not what he thought he wanted, but it’s pretty much what everyone in the audience would want, if they were honest.
The play is never boring, the language is funny. The situations are ludicrous. The best reason to go is to watch Austin Pendleton own the stage. Even his silence dominates. Every expression on his face is a gem worth watching. He is all there, all the time. He dominates the production. His acting is a masterpiece. You may never get to see another that equals it in your lifetime.
The women are all exceptional too. They express their feelings adeptly and as each exposes herself to the audience, you just want to love and comfort them.
Nadia Bowers, as Ella, the eternal beloved, is artistically multi-faceted and physically so facile that it tears your heart that she’s stuck with such a schmuck. Wait a minute. He’s old and sick. May her next selection be better! It certainly can’t be worse.
Kimberly Chatterjee’s Sonia has an excess of misguided faith in her future, but an ability to face the truth and go on with the cards she’s been dealt. Stacey Linnartz as Pickles can’t face the truth, but you want to offer her solace and hope things may turn out better for her than she expects. Barbara Kingsley’s Babs is older. She has seen the world and served herself what she wanted when she wanted it.
The problem for me was two-fold. Both the doctor and Vanya left me cold. All the men I know who love what they do stand less stiffly and move with more grace and ease than Michael Schantz’s Doctor. Jeff Biehl’s Vanya was a Johnny One Note. His voice never moved out of its dead delivery range. Also, he is always angry, but his anger is dishonest. Real anger always contains a strata of shame.
But Aaron Posner’s pre-communist Russian countryside was very intriguing to behold. And the audience certainly thought so.
Life Sucks. Through April 20 at the Wild Project (195 East Third Street, between Avenues A & B). www.thewildproject.com
Photos: Russ Rowland