Anton Chekhov’s plays are having a surge in popularity, they just look a little different. The musical Songbird played 59E59 in 2015 and set The Seagull in a honky-tonk bar. In 2016, Cate Blanchett took off her bra and shot a shotgun at her birthday party in The Present, formerly Chekhov’s Ivanov. Halley Feiffer’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, a contemporary take on Three Sisters, is set to open at MCC this summer.
For me, the most successful of this recent wave (Feiffer’s unseen work excluded) was Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird. A brash metatheatrical re-working of The Seagull, Posner’s play had its New York premiere at the Pearl Theatre in 2016 and featured a tour-de-force performance by Christopher Sears in a role that ran the gamut of emotional expression. Posner’s writing was epic and magnificent. Davis McCallum’s production was theatrical electricity, bringing the play through Posner’s disintegrated fourth wall and out to the audience. It was an unforgettable experience and announced Posner as an inventive, “post-abstract” playwright.
That descriptor is borrowed from Posner’s newest work, a sibling play to Stupid Fucking Bird. Life Sucks. takes Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya as its jumping-off point, but it is a tamer, less anarchic play than Stupid Fucking Bird, although you probably could have guessed that from the lack of an expletive in its title. Here, too, Posner takes Chekhov’s characters and ushers them away from Russia and into America; he brings them out of the nineteenth century and into the twenty-first. But where Bird was a hot-blooded play full of passion – for art, for life, for sex, for love – Life Sucks. is a cooled-down play focused mostly on unrequited love and unfulfilled potential.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The subject matter of The Seagull lends itself to the kind of play Posner created from it, while Uncle Vanya is fundamentally sad, no matter how much Chekhov insisted it is a comedy. The corresponding temperatures of Posner’s loose adaptations are in line with their source material(s), it just means that Life Sucks. is less frenetic and, therefore, less theatrically exciting. Comparing the two is only natural, since the success of Stupid Fucking Bird is, ultimately, what lead to the creation of Life Sucks., but their pairing really ends there.
Life Sucks. begins with a direct address to the audience, where the company of actors stands in a line at the lip of the stage and explains what the play will be about: “love and longing”, to be specific. This happens a few times over the course of the play and these illusion-shattering interludes are where Posner’s wit shines through. In two mirroring asides, the company extolls “3 Things I Love” and then “3 Things I Hate”, seemingly innocuous lists that then reveal deeper yearnings they cannot otherwise express. Through these group scenes and individual one-on-one style monologues with the characters, Posner fashions a world where we, the audience, are also at Sonia’s house in the country. This break from Chekhovian naturalism – or whatever the not-so-natural Posnerian version of that is – to conversational address opens the audience’s investment in the dramatic action and beckons us into the play. We are then complicit, the characters ask our opinions, and we contribute to the unfolding events.
The only time this goes haywire is in a misguided monologue in the play’s second half. Ella (called Yelena in Uncle Vanya) asks the audience who wants to have sex with her and then waits for a show of hands. The plot of Life Sucks. centers on Ella’s being irresistibly attractive; she’s so magnetic all the men and one of the women drive themselves crazy trying to win her affections. Nadia Bowers’ performance and Posner’s text convey Ella’s frustration with this: she is exasperated by everyone treating her as only a sex object, despite the fact that she has advanced degrees from reputable colleges. Bowers enlivens Ella with this undirected intelligence – she has no outlet for expression when no one wants to listen to her, they just want to tell her how attractive she is. That’s one of Posner’s points in Ella’s “How many of you would like to sleep with me if you could?” speech, but making the actress wait for horny audience members to raise their hands is painfully awkward. Because, frighteningly, some people do, eagerly, which harkens back to the actor-as-prostitute conversation and we’re beyond that. Bowers has to stand on the stage and count the hands of anyone in the audience who wants to fuck her. It’s humiliating and that initial horrifying awkwardness is not tempered by the larger point Posner is trying to make: that we are ashamed to admit who we want to fuck. Why does the anonymity of the audience-actor relationship make it okay to tell this actress that, as a group, some of us are sexually attracted to her? It is the character asking the question, but it is the actress’ body that is being objectified.
In general, Posner’s tone is hard to nail, but this ensemble of actors negotiates it smoothly, even if, as a whole, they lack a cohesive click. Director Jeff Wise has coached the seven actors into a playing style that flows seamlessly between a larger-than-life acknowledgment of the play’s outsized stakes and a smaller, more personal connection to the play’s human relationships and heartbreaks. Individually, every actor develops a unique, no-one-but-that-actor characterization that lends the play a ragamuffin charm, but the vast individual distinctions also isolate each actor from the others. It’s rare that a shared scene generates the kind of back-and-forth smoothness that Posner’s text calls for.
As Uncle Vanya, whose name is unchanged in Life Sucks., Jeff Biehl has the production’s most moving moment towards the end of the play. It’s a quiet monologue that he delivers in the space that comes after devastation, in the gap between sorrow and hopelessness. Posner’s writing has a piercing clarity in this speech and Vanya asks the audience to relate to his despair. “[W]hat’s the worst, most painful thing about your life that makes the thought of more endless, impossible days approximately tragic?” he asks. And then, like Ella, he waits for us to respond. This time, though, the man who quickly raised his hand to have sex with Ella did not respond. A chilling quiet comes over the audience as our inner, most secret pain comes pushing at the surface. Vanya knows we won’t respond, in fact, the rest of the monologue hinges on our silence. But he asked the question and we cannot forget it.
Is a Cherry Orchard riff next for Aaron Posner? Both Stupid Fucking Bird and Life Sucks. are probing, rich plays that use Chekhov’s foundation to explore the ways our contemporary interpersonal dynamics have not changed from how they were in the nineteenth century. Cell phones and social media aren’t what make it harder for people to communicate – it’s still the root problem: fear and self-doubt and the threat of loneliness. True in Chekhov, true in Posner, true in life.