Life Sucks, But at Least This Chekhov Adaptation’s Soundtrack Doesn’t

A soulless adaptation of Uncle Vanya at Custom Made Theatre — but one with lots of great jazz.  

Jensen Power, Gabriel Montoya (Jay Yamada)

Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks isn’t, as the press release suggests, a loose adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It’s a lobotomized version of it. Welcome to easy-listening or Chekhov-lite. All the pathos has been stripped from that 19th-century classic, to be replaced with sentimentality and feel-good aphorisms — none of which registers as anything other than a series of generically staged emotions. Curiously, Posner doesn’t significantly alter the plot. Instead, having grown impatient with their solemnity and sense of fatalism, he provides 21st-century solutions for characters who are ill-suited to receive them. It’s as if, after having loved the play for years, he eventually started to bristle every time he heard Vanya complain. So he reduced the drama down to easily parsed sound bites for a restless, contemporary audience.   

His Vanya (Evan Sokol) still aches for the love of a married woman. And Ella (Emily Stone) still remains the bewitching object of desire who drives him and two other men to distraction. Stone has electric red hair and alabaster skin. As Ella, she’s as voluptuous as one of Gustav Klimt’s goddesses. Posner wants the actress playing her to acknowledge the effect she has on men so he pauses Life Sucks, and not for the first time. He provides every character with a monologue to directly address the audience. In her case, Stone has to ask us to raise our hands if we want to sleep with her. Only one man sitting by himself brazenly raised his hand, chuckling all the while. If the playwright wanted to make everyone feel uncomfortable — including Stone herself, who managed the odd moment like a pro — he succeeded with flying colors.

In addition to these breathtakingly awkward exchanges, Posner adds codas that gather the entire cast together on stage. They arrive at the end of or during a transition between scenes. With a heading like “Three Things I Love,” the characters each recite such a list to us. This is a substitute for the actual work of dramaturgy, and a tepid one at that. We’re meant to extrapolate from three jejune words or phrases who these people are. It’s a shortcut that doesn’t properly imagine or bring out their inner lives. Nor did the arrival of sock puppets, which, sigh, I won’t go into.

Jensen Power, Evan Sokol, Dave Sikula, Emily Stone, Brittany Sims, Gabriel Montoya, Linda Ayres-Frederick (Jay Yamada)

And for some reason I never fully understood, the actors would ring a bell as they made their stage entrances and exits. At first, this device seemed like the practice of handing a baton to someone in a group therapy session so that they could have the floor to speak. But after awhile, the bell-ringing became more arbitrary and inspired me to take up hand-wringing in the hopes that it would stop. Thankfully, someone with great taste punctuated the scene breaks with palate cleansing classic jazz. Woody Allen used this technique in movies like September to brighten up a despairing mood. Here the music is the only jaunty thing in the face of so much lifelessness.    

Jensen Power is sweet-natured as the plain, neglected Sonia but the unrequited love she has for her neighbor, the good Dr. Aster (Gabriel Montoya), makes even less sense in Life Sucks than it did in the original. Posner puts Ella and Aster together in at least three scenes, making sure to write in his indifference to Sonia. Without that arc from the hope that she could attract him to the despair of knowing she never will, the crux of what draws us to Sonia is gone. She’s no longer sad or dreary or pathetic. Power just shrugs off the final rejection, blandly resigned to go about her business as usual. Their relationship, or lack of one, doesn’t engage as drama or as comedy. It’s just mush.

And if you didn’t get your fill of audience participation: At the curtain call, the cast asks and answers the question, “Does life suck?” Then the house lights go up and they throw this question out to the audience, “If it doesn’t suck, what makes it worthwhile?” After a prolonged moment of stony silence, one woman shouted, “Brunch.” At that, everyone in the theater laughed in unison for the first and only time.

Life Sucks, through June 1, at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St., $20-$45, 415-798-2682 or custommade.org   

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