Early modernist Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wasn’t Jewish, but there was and remains something innately Jewish in the soul of this literary master’s works. Or maybe it’s in the kishkes. Chekhov acolyte Aaron Posner, who previously adapted The Seagull for our present era (and a run at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater Company), renaming it Stupid F—ing Bird, has again drawn inspiration from Chekhovian themes and characters for his latest, a world premiere at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J aptly named Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous).
While Theater J audiences may know Posner’s work from his adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, on Chekhov Posner is far more than an adapter. Here he riffs, like a jazz musician, on Chekhovian themes exploring and expanding on fidelity, morality, aging, loss of hope and, to paraphrase Posner, who also directs this production, the all-around “suckiness” of life. The standard four acts and multiple characters all ensconced in a woodsy summer home, with some glorious distant views, are present in this variation on the original Uncle Vanya, which received its world premiere in 1899 at the famed Moscow Art Theater, where it was directed by Konstantin Stanislavski, the great director who influenced generations of actors in naturalist acting techniques.
For Posner, Vanya is Chekhov’s most Jewish of characters. And for Theater J, Sasha Olinick’s rendering of the imperfect Vanya is near perfect: the shlumpy clothes (by costume designer Kelsey Hunt), white socks with clogs (!), baggy shorts and oversized plaid shirts, the unkempt hair and beard, the slumped shoulders and an overwhelming sense of yearning and near-debilitating sense of failure that haunts him – he’s an endearing Woody Allen-esque blend, without the nebishy sex appeal – filtered with a heavy dose of Tolstoyan Russian depressive roots. Vanya, as in the original, is the caretaker of this lovely summer abode, finely designed by Meghan Raham with wooden beams, Pottery Barn sofas and easy chairs, and a swatch of Astroturf for grass. It looks less like a Russian dacha than a lakeside home on Lake Michigan, but it works.
The seven finely drawn characters each face a challenge, a burden, and, perhaps, keep a secret.
The aging professor, played with cranky vigor by loquacious John Lescault, laments his deteriorating body, while his young, smart, beautiful third wife, Ella (redheaded siren Monica West) sees, perhaps, the folly of marrying the smartest professor in her Ph.D. program, but unexpectedly remains at his side. As Sonia, Judith Ingber wallows in her desperation and unrequited love for her Uncle Vanya’s oldest friend, Astor (Eric Hissom) as a fading ladies man. And then there’s Pickles, the brilliantly off-beat Kimberly Gilbert, cutely strumming Beatles tunes on a ukulele and knitting sock puppets, milking laughs with jaw-dropping non sequiturs Posner has written for her.
Chekov’s characters were unparalleled in their day and shone brightly. In fact, we have an abundance of the Russian doctor/playwright’s work in the region this season: a new version of Uncle Vanya by Annie Baker goes up at Round House Theatre in Bethesda in April, while Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is scheduled for Arena Stage in the District that same month.
For Theater J, Posner has allowed his contemporized versions of Chekhov’s characters to glimmer as brightly and quirkily as they did a century before.
He has been generous, too, to the actors in doling out one fine monologue after another, each written with an ear to the cadences and specificity of language that reconstitutes these characters for the 21st century. In fact, it’s hard to choose a favorite, but Olinick’s Vanya, in his fourth-act meltdown digs exceedingly close to the bone, leaving the audience sniffling at the hard truths he lays out about dashed hopes and dreams.
The conundrums Chekov’s creations face are those of life itself: Why is it so damn difficult, so long, so boring, so relentless, so anxiety ridden, so lonely and so, so painful? Each character, as each audience member, the playwright seems to be saying, must carry the weighty burdens that life doles out. Are they Jewish? With characters so self-reflective, do we need to even ask?
And that Chekhovian technique of breaking down that fourth wall to allow actors to address the audience? Here Posner uses it expertly, not only letting the actors address their viewers, not as interlopers but friends, but, even better, they engage them/us. They ask hard questions and Theater J audiences, after being primed for years with challenging and thought-provoking plays, are not shy about speaking up. Talk back they do – at least they did on Monday – becoming part of the conversation the actors have as themselves and as their characters. It’s a bold and risky proposition Posner has taken up. And it works.
This isn’t the first time Theater J has tackled Chekhov. Recently fired artistic director Ari Roth adapted The Seagull in 2009, maintaining Chekhov’s sturdy bones, as Posner has done in Life Sucks. Roth’s approach reassessed Chekhov’s upper-middle class Russians, though, as secularized fin de siecle Jews.
For Posner, there is less artifice in the Jewishness or lack thereof of his creations. Vanya is unquestionably Jewish: he even calls his love interest, the magnetic Ella, his “b’shert,” and later stakes a claim for the quintessentially Jewish ideal of effecting change in oneself, rather than relying on edifying external religious forces or beliefs.
Then there’s Babs, wry and iconoclastic, played with dry wit and a ta’am of Yiddishkeit by Naomi Jacobson, a longtime Theater J favorite. Her “oys” and shrugs couldn’t be more Jewish and in Posner’s work that’s just fine. Jews have long wrestled – with angels, God, Jewish and secular law, and with, most importantly, and most Jewishly, themselves. And part of that wrestling, that existential struggle, means coming to terms with the toll life takes: disasters and disappointments, disregard and undeserved pain. It’s all there. It’s life and it thrives in the DNA of this play.
Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous) is onstage through Feb. 15 at the DCJCC in the District. Tickets, $35 and up, are available by calling 800-494-8497 or visiting www.theaterj.org.