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Review: Stranded Between Hope and Regret in ‘Life Sucks.’

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

A middle-aged, grouchily single man is bemoaning his fate. “Chilly, lonely breakfasts might be the worst first-world problem ever,” he complains.

A younger woman is not much happier, plaintively pointing out that “everyone thinks that if you look like me you have to settle for, you know, all the Steve Buscemis of the world.”

Feelings, so many feelings.

The pair, who fittingly are uncle and niece, are among a bunch of disgruntled folks who have gathered in a large house. They bicker with each other. They despair about frustrated loves and stalled careers.

We wouldn’t expect any less from a show called “Life Sucks.” Then again, Aaron Posner’s bitingly funny, unexpectedly touching play also delivers significantly more.

If the premise feels vaguely recognizable, it’s because the show, which is getting its New York premiere at the Wild Project, is “sort of adapted from ‘Uncle Vanya,’” as Mr. Posner puts it. (He had already gone to the Chekhov well three years ago with his well-received “Stupid _____ Bird,” based on “The Seagull.”)

Mr. Posner has kept the original play’s basic architecture. The grump is Vanya (Jeff Biehl), and he still shares a home with the plain Sonia (Kimberly Chatterjee), but now we appear to be in the United States since there is talk of dollars and student loans. Both Vanya and the brooding Dr. Aster (formerly known as Astrov, portrayed by Michael Schantz) still pine for Sonia’s stepmother, Ella (the new name of Yelena, played by Nadia Bowers).

As ever, Sonia feels overlooked by everybody, including her secret crush, Aster, and her own father (Austin Pendleton, confirming once more his status as a New York stage treasure), an academic who specializes in semiotics. “That’s the study of … big trucks?” asks the daffy Pickles (Stacey Linnartz), an artist manqué nursing a broken heart and who appears to be loosely based on Chekhov’s Waffles. The only well-adjusted person is Babs (Barbara Kingsley), a potter.

The characters and basic plot will be familiar to “Uncle Vanya” fiends. But at the same time, “Life Sucks.” will be familiar to just about anybody. Chekhov’s play has transcended the centuries because it is about timeless concerns: how hard it is to communicate with others, the vagaries — and unfairness — of love, the idea that life is something you must simultaneously endure and make the most of. And underneath the fourth-wall-breaking jokes and contemporary references, Mr. Posner has preserved those elements. He understands full well that there is no date stamp on feeling stranded between regrets and hopes, between fancy dreams and the banality of existence.

Briskly directed by Jeff Wise for the Wheelhouse company (“Happy Birthday, Wanda June”), the production keeps finding perceptive ways to rejuvenate the story. As portrayed by Mr. Biehl, for instance, this Vanya is a tightly coiled ball of frustration and pent-up fury rather than the embittered truth-teller we tend to get. Ms. Bowers’s Ella, pensive and kind, is uncomfortable with the fact that others see her as “the world’s sexiest ocelot,” while Ms. Chatterjee gives us a Sonia who is refreshingly bubblier than usual without losing any of her wistfulness.

Its mock-desultory title includes a period that gives it an air of finality, but flexibility and openness are part of the show’s DNA. The characters must adapt to their anxieties and confront what keeps them stuck in place. In a key scene, they challenge the self-pitying Vanya, as if conducting an intervention. “Spoiler alert,” Babs says. “Most of us won’t get everything we want.”

Flexibility is also baked in the text itself as Mr. Posner leaves a bit of wiggle room for improvisation and unobtrusive audience participation, down to the conclusion. The show’s ending was comically surreal at the performance I caught, last Friday night. Yours will be completely different. Life and theater — you just can’t tell how they will turn out.


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