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BWW Reviews: Theatre J Strikes Comic Gold with LIFE SUCKS

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You know you're in for an out-of-kilter evening when you walk into a theatre before the show and, instead of a slickly-produced sound or video montage you are serenaded by some ukulele-wielding geek in a Moe Howard haircut and tacky, rolled-up peach-colored jeans, who is only vaguely acquainted with the Beatles songbook.

Not to worry-the stunt is truly endearing. And Kimberly Gilbert's simple playing style, as the comic character Pickles, is one of the highlights of a truly enjoyable evening.

Filled with laughs and anarchic asides, as well as a healthy dose of audience participation, Theatre J has an unqualified hit in Aaron Posner's Life Sucks [Or the Present Ridiculous]. Here we have Posner's thoroughly irreverent, Jewish take on Uncle Vanya, Russian playwright Anton Chekov's classic tale of unrequited love and unfulfilled lives. Forget the theatre history lecture, however; this is pure slapstick at Chekhov's expense and nothing to be intimidated by in the least.

Uncle Vanya was originally a meditation on life's many, many disappointments, hence the new title; but Posner ditches the epic self-pity of the original in favor of witty confessional monologue, complete with show-stopping one-liners. And although the actual story line gets chopped up a bit, who cares? It's a perfect anecdote for those dreary, "shaddup, it's good for ya" shows we're supposed to endure.

Posner's ear for comedy is reminiscent of Mel Brooks in his prime (which, come to think of it, he's still in, so there). Chekhov, on the other hand, is an acquired taste; by profession a comic writer, his plays rely on laughs arising out of natural, everyday situations. His characters don't have punchlines; instead they get their biggest laughs from the smallest, most insignificant remarks imaginable. And although there is usually at least one cataclysmic event in each play-if there's a gun in Act 1, it has to go off by at least Act 3 (as it does here)-by and large Chekhov's plots are elliptical and seem to revel in their inertia.

Posner gives only slight attention to Chekhov's style, choosing instead to go for the jugular from the git-go. He has the cast assemble at the very beginning of the show to talk to us through their upcoming gig, and he has them routinely break out of character to toy with us and gauge our response to what they're up to. There is even the hilarious suggestion of a come-on from a member of the cast (won't say who, you'll have to see for yourself), but it's all part of the game.

Because Posner's writing is so egalitarian-nearly everyone gets their own soliloquy-the plot fades and the action (especially the shoot-em-up) can seem arbitrary. This renders Life Sucks more a series of comic sketches, profane, often bawdy and only occasionally wistful or pensive. Sasha Olinick, by virtue of his status as Vanya, should be the focus of our attention and his angst, and self-indulgent frustrations are by turns fascinating and amusing. But he has to share the boards with a rich cast of characters, each of them fully realized and deserving of attention.

As Sonia, Vanya's niece, Judith Ingber gives us the inner life of a girl whose fantasy life is as vivid and racy-nay, more-than we could ever imagine. Sonia is smitten with Astor (Eric Hissom), a local hero and environmental activist-Chekhov's idea, not Posner's-who is locked in a losing battle with the bottle. Astor, meanwhile, is smitten with Ella (Monica West), Sonia's stepmother, who seems to attract all sorts of unwanted attention from everyone onstage and off.

As Ella, Ms. West has the welcome task of undermining the male fantasies of nearly everyone onstage (and a good number in the audience), stroking her bold red locks while venting her frustration that men can only see one thing in her. Meanwhile John Lescault, with cane, bottle glasses and Walt Whitman beard, gives us her husband the Professor (which also makes him Sonya's father and Vanya's brother-in-law, for those of you keeping score). A true lion in winter, Professor knows his time is nearly up and he genuinely resents the daily reminder that his aging body gives him.

Rounding out the cast we have Naomi Jacobson as Babs, Vanya and Sonia's housemate and (by some quirk or other) a pottery enthusiast, which explains all the cozy, home-made mugs that materialize throughout the play. Babs is the closest to an emotional anchor the play can muster, and her been-there-done-that demeanor is a welcome antidote to the histrionics around her.

Perhaps the most remarkable characterization here, however, is Kimberly Gilbert's turn as Pickles, the awkward neighbor whose desires and frustrations are muted but ever-present. Pickles, the cock-eyed optimist, approaches everything with a friendly disposition; armed with her ukulele, she also seems to have a song for every occasion whether her friends need one or not. Gilbert's characterization is so complete that we can tell Pickles loves every song Lennon and McCartney ever wrote, even when she clearly can't remember a melody to save her life.

Meghan Raham, working with Theatre J's shallow stage, manages the feat of including nearly every scenic trope we associate with Russian realism, from the standard-issue stalks of wheat to putting-green lawn grass and the vaguely-timbered look of a country home. Kelsey Hunt decks out the cast in appropriately low-key modern dress-leaving room for Pickle's slightly tacky look to stand out, and Samina Vieth has assembled a fine assortment of tchotchkes (remember the mugs?) to fill out the life of the space.

Because the show relies heavily on actor-audience interaction, and because the questions the characters ask can be so amusing and scandalous, it's almost a shame to bring your significant other along-let's just say s/he might not appreciate your sense of humor. Put it this way; bring 'em along, but advise them that you might be "in character" when the time comes. It's nice to have a show where the customers have a turn themselves.

Production Photo: Kimberly Gilbert (Pickles) and Judith Ingber (Sonia). Photos by C. Stanley Photography.

Parental Advisory: Life Sucks [Or the Present Ridiculous] features mature subject matter that may be inappropriate for younger children.

Runing Time: 2 hours & 10 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Life Sucks [Or the Present Ridiculous] runs January 14-February 15 at Theater J, located in the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, 1529 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC (at the corner of 16th and Q Streets). Tickets are available by calling 800-494-8497 or by logging into http://washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j/box-office/.


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