A witty Uncle Vanya for the 21st century
Playwright/director Aaron Posner is having his way with Chekhov again, and what a treat it is for us. If you thought he’d wrung all he could out of the Russian scribe’s wintry angst with the hit Stupid F-ing Bird that sold out two separate runs at Woolly Mammoth Theatre last year, you will find yourself happily wrong.
Life Sucks [Or the Present Ridiculous], now bursting off the stage at Theater J in paroxysms of facetious glee, follows his take on Chekhov’s The Seagull by slicing up Uncle Vanya this time and serving it to us with acerbic, witty commentary on human relationships both timeless and contemporary.
Theater J describes it as an “irreverent variation” on Vanya and company’s torments. But that’s just where it starts.
It’s a delight, from some point before the play actually gets underway until you are filing out of the theater doors at the end. The first thing you experience is the music, as Pickles (Kimberly Gilbert) strums a uke on the set and rather tunelessly sings old Beatles songs.
She is lost in her own world as we pass by on the way to our seats. It’s gentle and rather charming, and serves to soften us up for what is to come.
That’s what we hear. What we see is a wooden home designed by Meghan Raham — a stylized mix of interior and exterior, the wooden beams reaching up and branching out into a tree-like evocation of Vanya’s garden.
And what blossoms here is a wrenching look at impossible love and wasted life, bitter and sweet and achingly funny and comically poignant, all in one play, the themes updated to the present time.
A fluid, talented cast
As in the original material, an aging and quite pompous professor (John Lescault) and his alluring, much younger, second wife — the flame-haired, creamy-skinned Ella (Monica West) —return to the country estate that provides their income.
The home has been managed by Sonia (Judith Ingber), the professor’s daughter by wife number one, long dead. She has been assisted by Vanya (Sasha Olinick), her uncle, brother of her late mother.
Both Vanya and Astor, a neighbor, are enchanted by Ella, which only exacerbates the languor they wallow in out in their pastoral nowhere. Sonia, plain and lacking self-confidence, longs for the affections of Astor, while Pickles longs for her long-lost girlfriend.
Babs (Naomi Jacobsen), an older woman of the world, is on hand to provide some steadiness among the shaky psyches in the household. Ella, seemingly the object of various longings by everyone in the place, veers between respect for her husband and interest in Astor.
The catalyst for change happens when the Professor says he has to sell the estate to raise funds to provide for his own existence, jettisoning Vanya and Sonia from their home.
Directed by the author
This is one of those rare times when having a playwright direct his own work pays off handsomely. Posner’s cast seamlessly goes back and forth between moments of introspective anxiety and sorrow, and moments where they interact directly with the audience, challenging us, questioning us, and drawing us ever closer to them.
Their barbs are sharp, their wit is penetrating, their observations wryly comic and ironic. They make fun of themselves with self-effacing commentary, and even lampoon the play itself. Posner wrings naturalistic performances from each actor in this most unnatural milieu.
In this way, Gilbert’s Pickles (Waffles in the original Checkov) can move from the lightly comic persona we first experience to displaying raw vulnerability — the pain of someone who still loves everyone she has ever loved and lost, as she explains. And then bounce right back to normal.
Posner also gives his characters a mix of acute self-awareness and emotional frailty.
The Professor proclaims he sees his self-image as that of a mid-career Sean Connery rather than a “bloated, aging Bill Maher.” Of course, he’s exactly wrong on that — a moment that’s funny, illuminating and rather sad simultaneously.
The perceptive Ella describes Sonia as being like an avocado, something that tastes good, is good for you, but has a strange texture.
Audience involvement works
The exchanges with the audience are some of the sharpest moments in the play.
By directly engaging the audience, Posner avoids the tiresome exposition that plays like this require. Instead, the actors are given the opportunity to explore character, savor his penetrating writing, and advance the story.
With the fourth wall torn away, Posner turns the tables on the audience, putting the focus on us at times. It’s wonderfully provocative, inventive and most of all, very funny.
Each cast member is excellent, but there are two standouts. With her chiseled, cool beauty and intelligence, Monica West makes us believe everyone in the theater is entranced in varying ways by her. She’s truly an Ella enchanting.
Way over on the other side of the spectrum, Sasha Olinick’s shambling, ineffectual Vanya is also a revelation as he realizes the profundity of his inadequacy.
Hearing him lament that “being lonely at breakfast is the worst First World problem” is almost worth the price of admission.
So, life pretty much sucks for everyone on stage. But that just makes things all the livelier for those of us in the audience.
Life Sucks [Or the Present Ridiculous] continues through Feb. 15 at Theater J, in the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. The Center is located at 1529 16th St. NW in Washington, D.C., four blocks east of Dupont Circle.
Show time is at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, at 3 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and at noon on Friday, Feb. 6 and 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 13. The performance on Thursday, Feb. 5 has open-captioning for the hearing impaired. There will be a free post-show discussion on Chehhov’s legacy at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8.
Tickets are $35 to $65, with senior and military discounts. Call Box Office Tickets at 1-800-494-8497 or visit https://www.boxofficetickets.com/bot/wa/producer?id=37.
Street parking nearby is limited. Colonial Parking Garages are located at 1616 P St. NW and 1515 15th St. NW. If you’re going via Metro, it’s nearest the Dupont Circle Station on the Red line.