Once upon a time, when a musical opened on Broadway, it was common for a combo to release an LP (everybody remember what an LP is?) of jazz impressions of the score. Shelley Manne released Jazz Performances of Songs from Li’l Abner. Bobby Hackett released The Swingin’est Gals in Town featuring his takes on songs from Sweet Charity and Mame. And there were uncounted jazz explorations of West Side Story. The songs on these albums were recognizable – the basic tunes and the chords were there – but the tracks offered hip, colloquial transformations garnished with improvisations.
Life Sucks strikes me as the jazz album version of Uncle Vanya. Again, the basic tunes and structure are there, but playwright Aaron Posner has updated and reshaped the material to include meta-theatrical flourishes and contemporary riffs on themes that Chekhov dealt with in the original.
Generally, I get cranky with post-modern messing with the classics. Classics are classic for a reason, and they usually don’t need lesser contemporary talents to attempt to improve them. (Almost any contemporary talent compared to Chekhov is lesser.) But Posner isn’t trying to displace Uncle Vanya (which his actors addressing the audience in a prologue acknowledge is the better play), but engage many of the same concerns Chekhov did embracing contemporary language, which alternates between the frequent use of “fucking” as a modifier with genuinely expressive passages.
The best-known actor here is Austin Pendleton, playing the aging professor. Coming on the heels of his performance in Broadway’s Choir Boy, his off-Broadway direction of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays, I can’t help but wonder if he ever has a moment to himself to draw breath. At any rate, as someone who has watched Pendleton since his days with ACT and the original production of Fiddler on the Roof, this strikes me as a high point in an astonishing career.
Also striking is Nadia Bowers as Ella, the professor’s wife, and the object of interest by much of the rest of the dramatis personae. At one point, breaking the fourth wall, she attempts to take a poll of how many in the audience would want to sleep with her. This reads more as an expression of her sense of exasperation than a desire to provoke. I prefer Posner’s version of this character to Chekhov’s. Certainly Ella is more assertive and funnier than Yelena, who has always tried my patience a little.
The rest of the cast (mostly people I can’t remember encountering before) is on the very high level Pendleton and Bowers set. Jeff Wise’s direction is among the season’s best.
Life Sucks is produced by the Wheelhouse Theater Company and is running at the Wild Project at 193 East 3rd St.