NJT closes season with adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’

Michelle Hand (left) and Katy Keating in New Jewish Theatre’s production of ‘Life Sucks.’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Aaron Posner’s ironically titled “Life Sucks,” a comedic adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” is closing out the 21st season of the New Jewish Theatre, appearing through June 21 in the Jewish Community Center’s Arts & Education Building.

Not only is “Life Sucks” the final play of the season, it is the last NJT play of the 21-year run of Kathleen Sitzer as the company’s artistic director.

Sitzer’s recently appointed successor is veteran theater director Edward Coffield, who does an admirable job directing Posner’s adaptation of Chekhov’s play, which features an excellent cast and lots of moving parts. Unfortunately, those moving parts often collide and make the proceedings confusing and the relationships among the characters hard to understand. The fact that many of the players are imitating people who are very drunk doesn’t do much to help matters, either.

The action takes place entirely within the Professor’s (Greg Johnston) country estate (beautifully constructed by the set design and production crew).  The permanent residents of the house are his daughter, Sonia (Katy Keating), her uncle Vanya (Christopher Harris) and quirky friend Babs (Jan Meyer). The Professor’s country home family is his closely held secret space, while he lives in the big city with his third wife, Ella (Julie Layton).

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Don’t be discouraged by the play’s off-putting title, “Life Sucks.” The point of the play seems to suggest that yes, sometimes life does seem to become unbearable. But even when it is, we are surrounded by blessings for which to be  thankful. 

Harris does a masterful job portraying Vanya, a bitter, broken man who feels that his life has been wasted toiling on the estate of his brother-in-law. Johnston is spot on in his convincing portrayal of the Professor, who resents Vanya and whose only solace is his gorgeous wife. 

Also superb is Jeff Cummings as Dr. Aster, who retains his razor sharp wit even when he struggles to keep from falling down from all the booze he consumes in the course of the play. Sonia, despite being named after the Greek word for wisdom, pines away pathetically for the good doctor who does not requite her obsessional love. “Love is love,” she says.  “I don’t know how to stop.  I don’t want to stop.”

Whether or not life “sucks” is largely up to us in most instances.  When problems seem large, they can be managed if one keeps in mind that despite daily frustrations, there remains much for which to be grateful.

Russian novels, plays and short stories cover a lot of territory—love, death and the meaning of life.  Those who are already familiar with Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” will find the action here easier to understand. The relationships among the characters are murky and sometimes difficult to keep straight during the overly long and somewhat repetitive play. The characters not only talk to one another, but make little side comments to the audience, which by the second act brings the story into sharper focus.

Overall, “Life Sucks” contains several thought-provoking scenes and some solid acting despite a cumbersome script.