The first time I encountered Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, I identified strongly with the title character, both with his frustrations and what he thought of as the tragedy of his life. As I got older, however, and saw many more productions of the play, I began to recognize that many of Vanya’s problems were solvable and that the person responsible for ruining his life was mainly himself. Apparently playwright Aaron Posner felt the same way, because his look at Vanya, entitled Life Sucks., brilliantly interrogates not only cranky Uncle V but also all the other characters in the play to attempt to understand their tragedies and possibly resolve them. The new production by Interact Theatre Company at the Broadwater Main Stage is superb – funny, smart, audacious and finally quite moving.
Vanya (John Ross Bowie) is unhappy. This isn’t unusual, but the thing that is causing his endless stream of sarcastic, angry comments is that his older brother, The Professor (Steve Vinovich) is currently visiting with his pretty wife Ella (Erin Pineda) in tow. Vanya is desperately in love with Ella, as is Vanya’s friend, Dr. Aster (Marc Valera). Vanya’s niece, Sonia (Olivia Castanho), is in love with the doctor, but can’t get up the courage to tell him. Meanwhile, family friends Babs (Anne Gee Byrd) and Pickles (Lily Rains) watch on as the family twists itself into knots of misery, waiting to see how it will resolve.
Bowie is convincingly bitter and witty as Vanya, but is even better in dramatic moments in which his character is confronted with uncomfortable truths and accepts them. The role of The Professor was conceived as an arrogant narcissist in Chekhov’s play, and Vinovich certainly portrays that, but in this writing even this character isn’t completely unsympathetic, and Vinovich succeeds in conveying the man’s fear of mortality as well. Castanho does lovely work as Sonia, indelible in her monologue about unhappiness, and Valera excels as the doctor trying to save Vanya from himself. Rains is charming as the ever-positive Pickles, especially memorable in a scene in which Pickles explains her concept of love, and Byrd is great as the supportive Babs, delightful in a speech wherein she reveals an unexpected past lover. Pineda, however, steals the show as Ella, the frustrated object of desire or hatred, with her sharp and hilarious performance, and the various scenes in which she confronts her would-be lovers or rants to the audience are highlights of the show.
Director Barry Heins gets strong work from his cast and manages the frequent transitions from traditional theater to breaking the fourth wall with seamless ease. Evan A. Bartoletti’s domestic home set is airy and effective, and the duo of musicians, Madison Leinster and Dylan Gorenberg, provide lively and skilled accompaniment to the show. Posner’s cleverness and sense of humor is never in question (he describes Ella as “the world’s sexiest ocelot” and has Vanya answer “Three Things I Hate” with “myself, others and optimists”) but it’s his ambition to dig deeper into Vanya that truly impresses. He challenges the traditional way in which these characters are seen and uncovers answers that are surprisingly deep and emotional, in ways that not only heal the characters but to some degree, the audience as well. There’s at least one scene played to the audience that was so confrontationally direct that I’ve never seen anything else like it.
Life Sucks. exceeded my expectations on every level, and I went in with high expectations. In what has turned out to be a very good year for L.A. theater, this production is one of the high points.
Life Sucks. is presented by Interact Theatre Company at The Broadwater Main Stage and plays through Sunday, October 29 2023. Tickets are available here.