Chicago Theater Review: LIFE SUCKS (Lookingglass)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 18, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

DEATH BY COMMENTARY

Glib, pat, and smug, Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird disrupted and deconstructed Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Audiences loved it for its bratty, “in-your-face” 21st century bravado. Now a Midwest premiere by Lookingglasss Theatre Company, Posner’s latest updating (downdating is a better term), Life Sucks is not to be confused with Mel Brooks’ much funnier Life Stinks. (If only…) Like Posner’s previous parody/travesty, it employs similar sabotage—apostrophes to and interactions with the audience, arbitrary lists from all-confessing characters (like “Three Things I Hate”), pseudo stand-up monologues that riff on the characters’ despair, and meaner (but not truer) dialogue to expose subtexts that Chekhov rightly left to our imagination.

danielle-zuckerman-penelope-walker-photo-by-liz-laurenPoisonously presentational, self-referential and meta-theatrical, the talky/tacky result is both intimate and smarmy, gossipy and inquisitorial. Instead of an organic story generated by the characters, not their opinions, we endure a set of self-indulgent, goofball variations on Uncle Vanya. Life Sucks (the title as deflationary as the script) drives a great play over a narrow cliff.

Announcing that their four-act remake is all about “love, longing and loss,” the seven-member cast proceed to process, not without brand humor or condescending compassion, other people’s pain. The hope here is that the comedy’s assorted shocks of recognition will ring home. Unlike the master, no eavesdropping is allowed: Life Sucks, which seriously debates the title proposition, is an illustrated lecture on how humans hurt each other and themselves. Also on whether that “imp of the perverse” is endemic and unavoidable or amenable to reform and rehabilitation (as in a literal fourth-act “intervention” inflicted on Uncle Vanya).

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Hewing to the intent if not the spirit of Chekhov’s bittersweet tragicomedy, Posner presents a family in fragments, friction, and frustrations. His not-so-magnificent seven are coming apart at graphic seams. Consumed by a work ethic that makes him miserable and certain that the future will hate us for good reason, the pro-environmental Dr. Aster (Philip R. Smith) hates the aging he can’t avoid. Besides booze, his one escape is flirting with Ella (Chaon Cross). Tough-loving and too admired for her own taste, Ella is the beautiful and purposeful young wife of The Professor (Jim Ortlieb). She finds herself caught in a “sexual danse macabre” where all men love her–to her impassive indifference. Her pedantic husband is a pompous, self-pitying expert in semiotics, the head of the family by default. (He married Vanya’s deceased sister and now controls the dacha where Posner pontificates.)

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Hopelessly in love with the self-absorbed doctor, Sonia, the Professor’s plain and broken-hearted daughter, has kept the cash-consuming estate going for years, with help from her Uncle Vanya (Eddie Jemison). Giving up on life, Vanya dotes on Ella, loathes the Professor, and opines, over and over, how “the joy is gone” from life. When the Professor dares to sell the property to subsidize his barren research, Vanya erupts in impotent rage. (Four shots fired and none hits the Professor.) As punishment (but why us?), Vanya endures a boring intervention/showdown in the final scene: Six characters reproach him for his sadsack depression with “What? Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?,” then confess their individual accommodations with life’s sucking. (Nothing could be less spontaneous or more emotionally unearned.)

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Rounding out the quirky household is Penelope Walker’s Pickles, mourning her lesbian lover but surprisingly happy (compared to this crowd). Grateful for the gift of life (Posner’s solution to every sorrow), Pickles seems as level-headed as Sonia’s outspoken aunt Babs (Barbara Robertson). She’s an opinionated potter ever ready with an Oprah-like pep talk about owning your life and moving past your pity party. “Get it together!” is Posner’s very cheap prescription for everything.

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As entertainment, however, Life Sucks doesn’t. Putting a septet of Chicago’s sharpest performers to wizard use, director Andrew White makes his cast into a kind of minefield of contemporary comedy. We get Jemison’s hysterical Woody Allen or Gene Wilder, trapped in the steppes; no-nonsense Robertson’s dry deadpan a la Bea Arthur; Zuckerman’s nebbishy self-effacement like Tracy in Hairspray; Cross’ imitation of Wicked’s popular girl Glinda; Ortlieb’s channeling of George Carlin; Smith’s take on Chevy Chase; and Walker’s daffy-dopey Whoopi. Chekhov apart, hommage stalks this stage like the wrath of God.

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No question, Posner can pander to a 2016 audience and its impatience with plot exposition, subtext, or the evolution of emotions. “Cut to the chase, please. Nothing but the pain, then the validation. We’ve got emails to send.” Incidentally, all my sympathy goes to the opening-night audience member, one of several put on the spot, who had to argue that, just maybe, life doesn’t suck all the time. There are good moments, she shyly said, nervously implying that this was not one of them.

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Chekhov, of course, needs no dumbed-down contemporizing: The good doctor never imposed gratuitous suffering on his vulnerable melancholiacs. Caught in the act of living, Chekhov’s seven souls never hector us about whether life sucks or not. They’re too busy living it–with unsought authenticity and enforced loneliness. The Russian master’s truth-telling puts  to shame Posner’s patronizing Life Sucks and his 12-steppe support group.

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jim-ortlieb-barbara-robertson-photo-by-liz-laurenphotos by Liz Lauren

Life Sucks
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
ends on November 6, 2016
for tickets, call 312.337.0665 or visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nikki Smith September 20, 2016 at 8:49 pm

Your reviews are often wittier than subject you reviewed.

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