Review: CATCO’s Funny and Heartfelt ‘Life Sucks’
CATCO’s crowd-pleasing and laugh-filled production of Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks, directed by Steven C. Anderson, returns the greatest rewards if the audience ignores the “Adapted (Sort of) from Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya” credit. Someone who loves Uncle Vanya as much as I do spent much of the first act looking for deeper connections and shared feeling with the source while missing the lovely production of a contemporary comedy in front of me.
Life Sucks uses the structure of Chekov’s classic, a group of old friends and rivals in a rambling country house and a winking nod to the original four-act play. Posner’s play rigs these tent-poles to tackle one of its major themes: what happens when life doesn’t reward someone as they expected it would, including when they got when they ostensibly wanted.
The house centers on The Professor (John Feather) and his new wife, Ella (Anita McFarren). Vanya (John Innerst), Pickles (Vanessa Sawson), and the Professor’s longtime friend and rival, Dr. Astor (Todd Covert) lust after and pursue Ella. Vanya’s niece, Sonya (Kelly Strand) vainly tries to get Dr. Astor to see her, as a woman and as a person, while Babs (Mary Gray), an old friend of both the Professor and Doctor, comments and tries to get everyone else to know reason.
The most effective post-modern technique of Posner’s play and Anderson’s production is setting up the characters as representatives of varying styles of comedy and drama and letting sparks fly from those disparate approaches. McFarren’s Ella has an electric take on the gum-cracking heroines of the screwball 40s, shining light on the other character’s foibles and self-absorption and staking a place for what she wants; the only character who has a chance at finding a way out of the dissolution she’s mired in.
Innerst’s Vanya and Feather’s Professor are more ciphers, annoying in their own way but perfectly calibrated and acted annoying, with Feather playing with and tweaking the pitfalls of “classical” acting in this age and Innerst summing up and digging deep into the contemporary, entitled slacker anti-hero. Sawson’s Pickles is the show’s secret weapon, working assist after assist, vacillating between delicate and brash, until she lands a dazzling shot that seems to come out of nowhere.
Gray’s Babs subverts what could have been a paint-by-numbers “wise woman” with subtle, sharp, and intricate timing that slices through scenes and pretense; mirroring Ella without abandoning the three-dimensional life of her character. The parallels are strongest when those two characters stop the action to say what the audience is thinking. McFarren’s knock-out blow to Vanya, “You say ‘the real me’ and ‘what’s inside,’ what’s so different from what we see?” leaving stunned, righteous silence in its wake; and Gray’s “I’m sorry you’re hurting, Vanya, but you need to get it together,” sounds like a clarion call. Those moments coalesce what’s good about this play and drag it out of the predecessor’s shadow.
Covert’s Astor is volcanic; his charm and earnest desire to do good in the world make clear what draws people to him, even as he tries to drown that empathy, and the disappointment it brings, in booze and selfishness. His own pep talk to Vanya, and his gently trying to let Sonya down, are highlights of a performance that never falters.
Strand’s heart-breaking take on Sonya shows us a character we’ve seen many times but illuminates her with a flame so bright the unique contours are on full display; her soliloquy of understanding where she thinks she fits in the world was the first moment I saw the whole play on its own terms.
The periodic calling to the audience with questions I found distracting and frustrating but in full disclosure, I was in the deep minority there. For my Saturday evening performance, my fellow audience members loved that interaction, and it was a highlight of the play. Anderson’s direction is a marvel, using sight gags and placement of the actors to highlight the classic comedy of manners, moves and misdirection, but without ever losing sight of his actors as people or sacrificing the warmth this kind of show needs.
Don’t go into Life Sucks expecting Uncle Vanya but there are big laughs and intense connections to justify its more-than-two-hour running time.
Life Sucks plays through April 7 with performances at 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit catco.org/shows/2018-2019/life-sucks.