Off Broadway

Life Sucks, But Does This Play?

Life Sucks, But Does This Play?

Subtext is everything in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a masterpiece written as an explanation of what might be called, under a layer of sentimentally, “the wasted life” of these miserable souls. Many find it somewhat difficult though to structure any coherent and specific themes as the melancholic mood and atmosphere of the play fill the space rather than present a distinct philosophy of ideas. Not so in Aaron Posner’s take on the iconic tale. He has made his stance clear and precise by titling his play, without any hidden or deep agenda, Life Sucks, a Wheelhouse Theatre production in four succinct acts now being presented with a comedic style and a wink at the beautiful renovated Theatre Row. Posner’s Vanya strikes a very different key on the piano that sits just off center, claiming with a forthright agenda that his play is about love and longing, pretty much, and a whole lot of other stuff, but let’s not get bogged down in philosophical details. Let’s just “get this stupid thing started“, as the cast proclaims, gleefully smashing down the fourth wall with a swift and humorous non-Chekhovian kick.

Stacey Linnartz. Photo by: Russ Rowland.

Uncle Vanya’s characters feel trapped, stuck for all to see in their hopeless existences, mourning constantly their unsolvable losses, and holding tight deep and painful resentments for love lost and discarded. But can the same be said of the world that Posner (Chaim Potok’s The Chosen) has created in the here and now with the crew he has amassed? With a cast made up of seasoned pros pulling out every jocular witticism that can be found in the play, they all seem to be somewhat pissed by their situation, but ‘hopeless’ and ‘mournful’ doesn’t really seem to be the color of the day for these characters.

Kevin Isola, Michael Schantz, and Stacey Linnartz. Photo by: Russ Rowland.

Pickles, portrayed with a detailed simplicity by the wonderfully talented Stacey Linnartz (Public’s Ghosting) is by no means “an acquired taste“, Her love for Iris is real, and her wide eyed enthusiasm for connection is endearing. She radiates lose, but also a desire to connect and engage in the beauty of the walk and her world. Dr. Aster, handsomely played with sexual magnetism galore by Michael Schantz (NYTW’s Othello) is a sad drunk one minute, and then an energetic charmer the next, especially when he has set his sights on the attractive Ella, portrayed with wild flirtatious appeal by Nadia Bowers (ATC’s Describe the Night).  Married to the Professor, nimbly played with dumb intelligence and wit by Austin Pendleton (Broadway’s Choir Boy), she seems angry with her situation, but not entirely upset or trapped.  It feels like she has the power and the edge to just walk whenever she wanted to, even though it wouldn’t be into the arms of Vanya, portrayed with a delightfully funny twist by Kevin Isola (Signature’s Our Lady of 121st Street). Babs, touchingly portrayed by the marvelous Barbara Kingsley (Broadway’s August: Osage County) seems content and bemused with a drink in one hand and a smartly wry comment in the other. The only one that almost fits the trademark is Sonia, earnestly played with a passion by Kerry Warren (Broadway’s The River) [a part previously played by Kimberly Chatterjee (PH’s Dance Nation)]. In her hopeless love for the Doctor, some of that Chekhovian pain resides, even if it is just conveniently sewed onto the edges of her not so homely persona.

Austin Pendleton. Photo by: Russ Rowland.

The meta-theatrical fourth wall and the undercurrents are never really all that subtle, but said loud and clear for all to hear by this totally game and talented cast.  The pained interior is pretty much the same as the external in this production, a realization that Isola’s Vanya finally understands in one of the more touching moments of this funny laugh out loud play that never really gets under your skin. It clearly is smart in its humor, but deep subtext is nowhere to be found 0n that simply designed stage by Brittany Vasta (Signature’s Octet), with costumes by Christopher Metzger (Wheelhouse’s An Enemy of the People), lighting by Drew Florida (Ali Forney Center’s 1969), and sound design by Mark Van Hare (Kansas City Rep’s Brother Toad). Fleeting joy gets its blender buttons pushed with absentee glee by all, including Pickles’ puppets, with a pained, weighted indulgence masked as light depression for laughs. In that West End Pet Shop Boy’s Town, as directed with a quick and sharp eye for the joke by Jeff Wise (Wheelhouse’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June), the characters attempt through muddled and casual blocking to make sense of their surroundings and their lives. It’s all very funny, and for moments here and there, touching, but I couldn’t help but wonder what sucked so much in their lives beyond not getting exactly what they want, superficially and instantaneously. But with a show of hands, some questions thrown out to the audience, an answer was given that had surprising depth. The audience member clearly formulated what life was all about, and that answer, although not written by the playwright, did not suck.  It was actually pretty wise and deep, unlike most of this enjoyable silly play.

Michael Schantz & Nadia Bowers. Photo by: Russ Rowland.

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Off Broadway

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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