In 2018, Wheelhouse Theater Company staged one of the best plays of the year, a no-holds-barred version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The New York City troupe has now delivered one of the best plays of 2019, Aaron Posner’s outrageously funny, irreverent reimagining of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya titled Life Sucks., which opened last week at the Wild Project, where it continues through April 20. A follow-up to Stupid Fucking Bird, Posner’s “sort of” adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull (next Posner will take on Three Sisters, to be called No Sisters), Life Sucks. — the period in the title is intentional, making it a simple and direct statement of fact — is set in the present, with seven characters gathered at a country estate run by the bitter, sardonic, tightly wound Vanya (Jeff Biehl) and his niece, Sonia (Kimberly Chatterjee), a wholly competent and caring young woman with severe self-esteem issues. The pedantic and egotistical elderly Professor (Austin Pendleton) and his much younger wife, the beautiful Ella (Nadia Bowers), have arrived unannounced to relax and share some important news. Also on hand are Babs (Barbara Kingsley), a nonjudgmental, smart, and funny artist; Dr. Aster (Michael Schantz), a tall, sexy, but odd workaholic whom women are drawn to; and the honest-to-a-fault Pickles (Stacey Linnartz), an average Jane and loyal lesbian who takes things rather literally.
As in Stupid Fucking Bird, the characters interact with the audience throughout. The play opens with the seven men and women lined up at the front of the stage, making announcements about cell phones, exits, and photography and pointing out, “We’re the actors. And you, of course, are the audience.” “Our play transpires in four succinct acts . . . just like Chekhov’s original, superior play,” the Professor explains. “Most of it is going to be about love and longing. Yep. That’s right, campers. LOVE. And LONGING,” Vanya promises. “It’s also about the audacious, ludicrous, and protean nature of the obstreperous and ever-feckless human heart,” the Professor adds. And Dr. Aster expounds, “It’s also about how disastrously, irretrievably fucked up the world is, and the insanity of the choices we humans have made for the last four hundred years.” In addition, the genius work deals with the very nature of theater itself.
Over the course of two hours and fifteen minutes, various characters admit their unrequited love for others — most crucially, Vanya desperately desires Ella, which increases his hatred of the Professor — and they all share their likes and dislikes and pour out personal monologues that reveal their deepest inner thoughts directly to the audience, sometimes even requesting a response. “How many of you would like to sleep with me if you could?” Ella asks, then waits for an answer. When Vanya wants to speak with the audience, he says to Babs and Sonia, “Can I have the room?” Director and Wheelhouse founder Jeff Wise (DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA, Happy Birthday, Wanda June) controls the glorious chaos as the barriers between what is real and what isn’t break down in hysterical ways, but it’s key to understand that the characters are always the characters, never the actors portraying them. Brittany Vasta’s set is a cozy living room with a piano, a trio of wall hangings, and a back wall constructed partially from wooden crates that carry theater supplies, with such words as “Uncle Vanya” stenciled on them. The cast is splendid, but it’s Biehl who rules the day, filling the Wild Project with riotous doom and gloom as Vanya, his disappointment with life hovering over the space like a dark cloud.
Chekhov’s play, itself a revised version of his earlier The Wood Demon, lends itself to reinterpretation, from Louis Malle’s film Vanya on 42nd Street and Markus Wessendorf’s Uncle Vanya and Zombies to Sally Burgess’s opera Sonya’s Story, Richard Nelson’s Apple Family–like version for the Hunter Theater Project, and New Saloon’s experimental Minor Character: Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time. With Life Sucks., Posner, a longtime director who has also written reverent adaptations of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, has created a Vanya for the twenty-first century, a brilliant skewering of contemporary values and, in the end, a triumphant celebration of that little thing called life.