Strings of bare lightbulbs hang over the audience’s heads. The actors, wearing (mostly) casual, modern clothing and speaking in plain, contemporary language, don’t so much break the fourth wall as never build it, reminding us we can leave right now if we don’t like their play and pausing, now and again, to ask us questions. Kimberly Gilbert plucks out Beatles songs on a ukelele.
You saw Stupid Fucking Bird, didn’t you? Aaron Posner’s flippant, lyrical, hilarious, heartbreaking remix of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at Woolly Mammoth? The best thing in any D.C. playhouse in 2013 and just maybe 2014, too, since its success begat a full-cast remount last summer?
If you did—and you should’ve—this will all seem familiar.
Despite being appended with a pomposity alert–triggering subtitle that sounds like it was coined by windbag Prof. Serebryakov himself (he’s just “The Professor” here), Life Sucks, Posner’s second cover version of a Chekhov warhorse—Uncle Vanya is the tune he’s riffing on this time—feels like Stupid Fucking Bird, Too, or Stupider Fucking Bird, or 2 Stupid 2 Fucking (Bird). Is this a problem? Not really. Its proficiency in writing, performance, and design is 100 percent as strong as its precursor. Which means it’s exactly 87 percent as good.
To compare the two plays is unfair, maybe, but also unavoidable. Life Sucks echoes SFB to the extent that Vanya echoes the earlier Seagull: They both track various lines of unrequited love in a placid, rural setting where no one feels at peace. (Set designer Meghan Raham makes this big country house look both airy and cozy, somehow, with handsome wood paneling and a view of the mountains.) Both feature a lonely, middle-aged doctor (the reliable Eric Hissom, a lifetime member of the Aaron Posner Players) and a self-loathing, suicidal dyspeptic (Sasha Olnick, here, as Vanya) in self-immolating love with a woman who doesn’t love him back.
SFB’s strong cast, mostly composed of actors who work a lot in D.C., included one equally remarkable but unfamiliar player from out of town: Brad Koed. Life Sucks, too, marks the D.C. debut of a major talent. That’s Monica West as Ella (originally Yelena), described by her much-older professor husband (John Lescault) as a “near-Cate Blanchett-like siren” who underestimates her own allure, imaging herself as “a sweaty, disheveled Lena Dunham after a 10K charity run for Africa.” Obviously, the line indicts the professor more than it does the Girls creator—Ella would love to be as self-actualized and accomplished as Dunham—but it’s also one of the few dozen locally sourced meta jokes here, since Blanchett actually played Yelena in Vanya at the Kennedy Center in 2011.
True to the original story, everyone is crushing on Ella here, a condition that only exacerbates her despair. (In one of those audience survey moments, she asks us, by show of hands, “How many of you would like to sleep with me, if you could?”) One of the most moving relationships that emerges is her late-night meeting of the minds over rum and Cokes with Sonia, the professor’s grown daughter by his first marriage. She’s in love with the doctor, but convinced that her plain appearance will always prevent men from noticing her. Judith Ingber has an appealing guilelessness in the role, never mind that if she’s “ugly” (per Chekhov), there’s little hope for the rest of us.
That goes double for Gilbert, who plays Pickles (the original character, Waffles, was so-named for his facial scarring; Pickles is just a funny name), a dim, sweet, 40ish-year-old lesbian who’s never recovered from being dumped 13 years before. She’s so self-effacing that the others tend to forget she’s in the room. Costume designer Kelsey Hunt has has gone out of her way to bury Gilbert in unflattering baggy orange pants and a ratty sweater, as though dressing like romance is no longer something that even occurs to her will make the heartache go away. You can’t shut down the longing, though. Life sucks that way, sometimes.
1529 16th St. NW. $10-$65. (202) 518-9400. theaterj.org