Sit Com Chekov At New Jewish Theatre With “Life Sucks”- Or Does It?

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Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris and Jeff Cummings address the question in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

With all of the angst, a gun firing in the third act (even though it wasn’t hanging on the wall in Act I) and all of the somewhat dreary characters, this might be “Uncle Vanya” but playwright Aaron Posner has taken that Chekov classic and turned it on it’s head. Though “Life Sucks” is not really written by relative, Uncle Miltie Chekov with additional dialogue by David Mamet, it comes close to being what this brooding Russian playwright would have written if he were writing for today’s TV situation comedies- on cable, of course.

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Michelle Hand struts through the garden with Greg Johnston and Katy Keating in the background and Christopher Harris in front during the New Jewish production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

A manor house run by Robert, a professor, his daughter, Sonia and his young wife, Ella is the setting and soon a group of others descend on the estate including the his first wife’s brother, Vanya, a sort of caretaker, Babs a local doctor and a local “cheerleader” for life, Pickles. Like in most Chekov, they complain about their lot and life in general- hence the title, “Life Sucks.” But in Posner’s script, melancholy is more a state of mind than an affliction.

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With tub side manners to spare, Jeff Cummings as the doctor chats with Christopher Harris as Vanya in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Christopher Harris is larger than life as Vanya. In love with Ella, he mopes around and even approaches Ella about his love for her. Along the same vein, Jeff Cummings as Doctor Aster professes his love for Ella and is similarly rejected. His opening semi-monologue sets the table for the evening as he pours his soul out to Babs. Jan Meyer is a tower of strength as the only truly sane person in the bunch, Babs. She dispenses logic where there really is none in this wacky garden party.

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Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris and Jeff Cummings in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Greg Johnston is solid as the professor realizing that his young wife is bait dangling in front of all the men- no matter their age. Although he flares up from time to time, he is confident in Ella’s love for him. Ella is the enticing Julie Layton. Provocative without trying to be, she- as several in the cast sometimes do- addresses the audience at one point asking who wants to sleep with her. She’s a bit befuddled at her sudden appeal but, with a wink and a joke, realizes it’s her curse. In fact the audience is really taken aback at how often the actors not only address them but ask for their opinion.

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Julie Layton as Ella and Michelle Hand as Pickles in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Katy Keating gives a touching performance as the delightful but overshadowed daughter who is in love with the doctor. She is the typical tragic character in any Chekov play as she feels destined to die an old maid. Finally we have Michelle Hand as the irrepressible Pickles. Oversized glasses, blue overalls and a hat scrunched down on her head give her the look of a homeless person who wandered into the proceedings. Hers is the magical role that brings a positive vibe to this whole “Life Sucks” party. This is a smart cast and you can always tell when a cast is delighted, not only with what they’re bringing to the stage, but with each other. It makes everything work with a more upbeat message- if you’ll pardon the rephrasing of a Gershwin tune- than any Russian play could ever do.

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Jeff Cummings as the doctor and Katy Keating as Sonia in the New Jewish production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

It’s all brought together by the New Jewish Theatre’s newest Artistic Director (next season), Edward Coffield. His touch is a light one that doesn’t shy away from Chekov but brings out the clarity and upside down treatment to his original “Uncle Vanya.” Peter and Margery Spack bring their wondrous talents to the front with an elegant garden for the estate. Divided into several playing areas (including a bathtub), it offers a lovely playground for this group of misfits. Maureen Berry’s lights enhance the mood and the wildly appropriate costume design is by Michele Friedman Siler.

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The cast in a wonderful final tableau in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

It’s good to see a Chekov play (at least one based on one of his more popular works) where you can leave the theatre with a smile on your face. Aaron Posner’s “Life Sucks” plays at the New Jewish Theatre through June 10th. Take time out to laugh and ponder the serious questions in life. Call them at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

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