The countdown is on for the final productions to be presented at that lovely, little audacious theater at 703 Foster Street in the burgeoning hipster, ever-increasing high rent district of downtown Durham. In its thirty-first, and final, season as the place to go for the best in high quality provocative theatre in the state, Manbites Dog Theater, in its present form, will cease to exist following the final show of this 2017-18 season. That is a great disappointment to this writer, since I only discovered this gem about twelve years ago, thus missing nearly twenty years of remarkable theatre.
So, get it while you can, especially the current run of Life Sucks. by Aaron Posner, a reworking, retelling, re-imagined version of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. With a runtime of nearly two-and-a-half hours, this is one of the lengthiest plays ever presented at Manbites Dog. The fact that it did not seem nearly as long is a testament to Jeff Storer's crisp direction and the allure of constant and creative kvetching.
This was also one of the most attractive, and probably expensive, set designs that I've seen at this theater. Moving from stage left to right, there was a very authentic looking old-world study with a large desk and fireplace, a kitchen table, a quasi-couch, and then what appeared to be a short dock, although actors stepped on and off it as if water was not an issue. Finally, way off on-stage right was a swing. A lot to look at, take in, and elevate the professional quality of the play.
All the actors came out at once and engaged in a theatrical device that you either love or hate: the breaking of the sacrosanct "fourth wall." That is, they dropped out of character, spoke directly to the audience, behaved as if they were not actually in a play, and even presented questions or situations to the audience for us to answer! (There was very little, if any, response from us the night I attended.) This lifting of the veil was fortunately brief and took place only a few times.
If I was to assign a subtitle to Life Sucks. it would be "Seven Characters Desperately in Search of an Actual Problem." Basically, we have a group of seven people either related or with shared history meeting at a country estate to languish, lust, lament, and attempt to answer not only the unanswerable, but, in the end, the very irrelevant question, "Does life suck?" There are some very unlikable and annoying characters in the play, yet it is the force of the overall excellent acting that makes this so compelling and interesting, although, even in make believe, its limit may have been reached.
The full-time residents of the estate are Sonia (Faye Goodwin), Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards), and Babs (Rhetta Greene). Sonia is still not over and refuses to "move on" (a phrase she hates) from a failed relationship seventeen years in the dust. She constantly whines about not being pretty enough. Her father, the professor (Michael Foley), is visiting with his new hot, young wife, Ella (Jessica Flemming). While he is a pompous pedant who curses the heavens for the increasing ravages of aging, Ella flits around wondering, like, "Why does everyone want to have sex with me?" Dr. Aster, played with cool reserve by Jock Brocki, is the male equivalent of Ella as the object of the women's lust. Pickles (Lakeisha Coffey) is played as a kind of goofy, "something is missing" character that doesn't add much to the story. Finally, there is Babs (Rhetta Greene) who attempts to be the voice of reason and clarity with an "everything is beautiful" ethos.
What occurs throughout the four acts (which the actors tell us when one ends and the next begins) is basically a series of vignettes exposing the relationships, not-so-very-repressed hostilities from past events, some sordid stories, and sophomoric armchair philosophy. The playwright Posner is very adept at using rapid-fire delivery, as well as some funny topical references to make you forget that these are merely bland, boring people wondering aloud if "that's all there is." When Vanya, the worst of the complainers, is finally scolded to "do something, travel, anything," the audience cheered!
There were several scenes where all the characters told us anything they liked and didn't like, a derivative idea already used in countless films and TV shows. The very weak ending consisted of the final argument and decision on whether life sucks or it does not suck. They then asked the audience what we thought.
Despite some cringe-worthy moments and the idea that I was watching two plus hours of healthy, beautiful, well-off people bitchin' and moanin', I am a bit confused as to why I enjoyed this so much. Overall excellent and convincing acting, a sense of total immersion in the story, and a well-integrated set and lighting made this a delightful experience, in a junk food/sitcom kind of way.
Life Sucks. continues through Saturday, November 11. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.