Friday, June 1, 2018

LIFE SUCKS • New Jewish Theatre

The angsty boredom that tugs at the characters in Anton Chekhov’s, Uncle Vanya, pours out in f-bomb-laden grievances in Aaron Posner’s, Life Sucks. With a contemporary spin and self-aware winks, each character tussles with their own bouts of love and loss, in those pesky little niches we all carve out for ourselves. Closing NJT’s season, this production also serves as a transition, as the company’s founding artistic director, Kathleen Sitzer, steps down after 21 years and passes the baton to Edward Coffield, who also directs.

After the pre-show music of acoustic Beatles tunes, the cast assembles to introduce themselves and clue us in on what we’re about to see. It seems everyone staying at Sonia’s rural country home wants a dance partner they can’t have. Sonia’s father, the professor, actually owns the place, but Sonia and her Uncle Vanya manage the property. The professor’s current wife, Ella, is also in tow. Dr. Aster, Vanya’s pal, lives down the road, but he’s been staying close, no doubt because Ella is visiting. Babs, an old family friend, and Pickles, who lives above the garage, are also on hand. Played out on Peter and Margery Spack’s idyllic set, each character takes turns lamenting their lot.

Ella (Julie Layton) and Vanya (Christopher Harris).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Christopher Harris has an ability to be endearingly funny and obnoxiously sullen at the same time as Vanya. He pines for Ella, and loathes the arrogant professor -- a man he used to admire. It’s true, the professor is a pompous windbag, but he’s got his own insecurities about the inevitable ravages of age, and Greg Johnston strikes a great balance. Sonia, portrayed by Katy Keating, is secretly in love with Dr. Aster, but feels that her looks won’t win her a second glance from him. Keating plays the role beautifully -- funny in a melancholy kind of way. Dr. Aster prefers to indulge in a little mutual flirtation with Ella, when he’s not drowning his sorrows in vodka over the useless years he feels he’s puttered away, and Jeff Cummings is commanding in the role. Ella, the object of desire among just about every houseguest, is played here by Julie Layton. She would seem to have everything she could ever want, but the affections that are hurled at her from people who know nothing about her aren’t flattering -- they’re tedious. Pickles, the quirky artist who loves deeply, is played by the buoyant Michelle Hand. She's unable to let go of a love from 17 years ago, but grateful for the opportunity to have loved at all. Babs, the most grounded of the bunch, takes life as it comes, and Jan Meyer is a wonderful neutralizer to the gloominess of the other characters.

Dr. Aster (Jeff Cummings) and Sonia (Katie Keating).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Michele Friedman Siler outfits the cast in perfectly character-driven costumes, from Vanya’s Chekhov t-shirt to the “Love is Love” button on Pickles’ overalls. Coffield keeps the show humming, and as depressing as you’d think the play might be, there’s an odd comfort in knowing that we’re all in the same boat -- struggling against stagnation.

• It’s bad enough when a phone goes off during a performance, but to answer it and have a conversation? Are you fucking kidding me? Please don’t ever do this. Ever. Kudos to Cummings and Harris for carrying on through this heinous infraction without missing a beat.

Babs (Jan Meyer) and The Professor (Greg Johnston).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey

Written by Aaron Posner, adapted from Anton Chekhov
Directed by Edward Coffield
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through June 10 | tickets: $41 - $44
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Vanya: Christopher Harris*
Sonia: Katie Keating
Ella: Julie Layton
Babs: Jan Meyer
The Professor: Greg Johnston
Dr. Aster: Jeff Cummings*
Pickles: Michelle Hand

Pickles (Michelle Hand).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Stage Manager: Dora Jane Trenbeath*
Scenic Designers: Peter & Margery Spack
Lighting Designer: Maureen Berry
Props Master: Margery Spack
Costume Designer: Michele Friedman Siler
Assistant Director: Gaby Rodriguez
Assistant Stage Manager: Gunnar Boucher
Sound Designer: Amanda Werre
Master Electrician: Tony Anselmo
Wardrobe Manager: Zahrah Agha
Board Operator: Justin Smith

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States

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