Emily Shackelford (left) and Beatrice Basso in "Life Sucks." Karli Cadel Photography
Say this for Aaron Posner: He knows how to make Chekov entertaining. Look no further than Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, which in 2016 staged Posner’s “Stupid Fucking Bird,” an irreverent adaptation of the Russian playwright’s “The Seagull,” and which is now presenting the West Coast premiere of Posner’s “Life Sucks,” a loose and intrepid take on “Uncle Vanya.”
The title of this play would seem germane to the times we’re living in, and sure enough Posner, who has also adapted Chekov’s “Three Sisters,” has made changes in the original “Life Sucks” script to reflect on our pandemic existence. “The play is very different from when I wrote it in 2015 because the world is so different,” Posner is quoted as saying in the Cygnet program.
Without having seen “Life Sucks” before this regional premiere, I can only say that if Posner reinvented the play for COVID commentary it is subtle. Without shouting out what we already know, “Life Sucks” the 2022 version redoubles what Posner is saying about no one being promised a perfect life, about how sometimes things do feel hopeless and that maybe it does suck to be here.
Look no further than the dreaded family gathering. As a wise person once opined: There’s a lot to be said for family, and a lot to be said against it. That certainly pervades the whole of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya,” in which such a gathering at a rural estate traffics in resentment, confrontation, self-recrimination, despair, a shooting … and I’m just getting started. In Posner’s “Life Sucks,” he checks all the Chekov boxes. The events may be taking place in the now and not the Russia of the 1890s, but they’re just as melodramatic. At first.
In “Life Sucks,” Sonya (Savanna Padilla) and her Uncle Vanya (MJ Sieber) are sharing uncomfortable space with The Professor (Frank DiPalermo) and his much younger third wife Ella (Emily Shackelford), over whom both Vanya and his best friend Dr. Astor (Jorge Rodriguez) are hot to bed. The lonely Sonya feels the same way about the dashing doctor. Also in the mix: the sassy Aunt Babs (Patty Gallagher) and the eccentric lesbian Pickles (Beatrice Basso). What happens through four half-hour acts runs very much parallel to “Uncle Vanya,” but Posner takes significant liberties, as in having his characters break the fourth wall to quiz and goof with the audience (really, the best part of this Cygnet production) and contemporizing their language and first-world problems.
Benefiting from the freewheeling pacing directed by Cygnet’s Rob Lutfy (who also directed “Stupid Fucking Bird”) and the riffing with the audience and with each other, this cast thrives on and exploits to consistently amusing effect the make-it-up-as-you-go-along momentum of the production.
Everyone gets a moment to shine, though Shackelford as Ella makes anyone in a scene with her just as funny as she is, and no one interacts with the crowd better. Sieber shifts between self-deprecation and tantrumming as Vanya, bringing to mind how, say, Kevin James might have played this role.
I got quite the kick out of DiPalermo’s arrogant, pedantic Professor, reminding me as he did of some of the academics to which I’ve been subjected.
As in “Uncle Vanya,” the Sonya character is possibly the most sympathetic. Padilla gets sympathy but also gets laughs.
Admittedly, the final act of “Life Sucks” turns “serious” with its life-affirming testimonies and what could practically be called piety. So what? If that’s what it takes to keep us from believing the two words that compose the play’s title I’m good. Truth is, life may seem like it sucks sometimes, but it doesn’t. When you can laugh when you didn’t think you were capable of laughing, you know you’re going to be all right.
"Life Sucks" runs through Feb. 27 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.