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Review: Rattlestick’s “Ode to Joy” Falls Flat

February 28th, 2014

Contributor Brace Cove experiences everything but joy at Rattlestick’s premiere of Craig Lucas’s new play. 

Roxanna Hope and Kathryn Erbe in "Ode to Joy" (photo by Sandra Coudert) via The Broadway Blog.

Roxanna Hope and Kathryn Erbe in “Ode to Joy” (photo by Sandra Coudert) via The Broadway Blog.

Ode to Joy a new play by Craig Lucas, tackles the relationships of an alcoholic. Frankly, I thought it might hit too close to home and I’d find myself overwhelmed with uncomfortable and difficult feelings. Alas, my trepidations were wasted. Ode to Joy is ultimately an unmoving evening in the theater… bordering on just plain dull.

Anyone who has lived with or in proximity to an alcoholic or drug addict knows that life is packed with dynamics. There are the manipulations, lies, infidelities, mistakes, cover-ups (and cover-ups of cover-ups), vomit, despair and loneliness to name a few attributes that life in his or her company has to offer. Addicts tend to roll through our worlds like a backwards steam roller. Instead of flattening everything out, they churn everything up and leave a wake of broken lives and dreams as they continue on the road to self-destruction.

How could a play with such subject matter end up so flat? Kathryn Erbe’s portrayal of alcoholic Adele is more like the result of an actual steamroller. Climactic moments that hold the promise of reaching the audience end up completely flat and lack the pathos that the script promises but doesn’t deliver. Lucas sets a lot of the more dramatic and theatrical alcoholic machinations offstage. The audience hears about them in Act II but only by proxy. However, the biggest problem onstage is the lack of human connection.

At one point in the play, Roxanna Hope, in a delightful portrayal of Mala, yells at Adele, “You know nothing about the meaning of words.” — a summation that echoes Erbe’s performance, one that feels so self-involved that the spoken words mean nothing. She had two speeds: neurotic and emotional flailing. Unfortunately, even these two speeds never seem to connect to any thing organic.

Kathryn Erbe and Arliss Howard in "Ode to Joy" (photo: Sandra Coudert) via The Broadway Blog.

Kathryn Erbe and Arliss Howard in “Ode to Joy” (photo: Sandra Coudert) via The Broadway Blog.

Arliss Howard and Roxanna Hope are far more engaging in their supporting roles. Hope is strong, energetic and connected, like a ray of hope, and makes good on the promise of her entrance throughout the show. Arliss Howard as Bill, is charming, connected and his Bill was driven. At times, he pushes the envelope a bit far, but at least his choices are theatrical even when they stray from the organic.

In the cardinal rule of writing, “show, don’t tell,” the first act is better than the second. There are some theatrical effects in the first act that catch the eye: some rolling in broken glass, blood, a lot of falls and face plants and some mistimed vomit.

The set design by Andrew Boyce is magnificently simple and versatile, transforming easily into different settings. Unfortunately, I spent a good deal of time watching the set and its alterations, which didn’t bode well for the pace of the play.

Perhaps with a bit more subtlety and a lead actress that can tackle the real-life emotions of a struggling alcoholic, Ode to Joy may soar. But at present, this tale of heartbreak and addiction fails to deliver.

Ode to Joy
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Cherry Lane Mainstage, 38 Commerce Street
Through March 30

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