‘I Was Most Alive With You’ at Playwrights Horizons. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
No one needs to be reminded that bad things happen to good people. In fact, most of us have had times when we felt like Job, the biblical figure whose faith God tests by visiting one disaster on him after the other. Job’s sufferings have inspired playwrights from the middle ages to modern times. The latest (but far from the best) example is Craig Lucas’s cryptically titled I Was Most Alive with You, a sincere but overwrought and dreary exercise in plot-stuffing at Playwrights Horizons.
Its take on the ancient story struggles to find traction, requiring Job-like patience to endure its two hours and 15 minutes. Unless you’re hard of hearing, that stretch of time isn’t significantly helped by the production premise on which Lucas insists. Since deafness forms a principal theme, there are two visible casts, one played by speaking actors, the other by shadow actors.
The shadow actors are placed on the upper level of Arnulfo Maldonado’s loft-like set where, for the benefit of the hearing-challenged, they enact what’s going on below in American Sign Language (ASL). Most of the characters sign to one degree or another, so ASL, accompanied by projected titles, often mingles with speech. (Speaking and shadow actors’ names, in that order, are separated below by a slash.)
Ash (Michael Gaston/Seth Gore), a middle-aged Jewish man, is a recovering booze and drug abuser. He and Astrid (Marianna Bassham/Beth Applebaum), his writing partner, are responsible for the longest running “serial” on TV, produced by Ash’s elderly widowed mother, Carla (Lois Smith/Christine Marie when I attended). Working at Astrid’s place, they decide to write about real events related to Ash’s family, in the wake of the previous year’s family Thanksgiving dinner.
Memories of what happened are then intercut with the writing process, everything being enacted in the same stage space with minor adjustments and the help of Annie Wiegand’s lighting. Sometimes Astrid and Ash look on and sometimes take part, not unlike the convention used recently in Jennifer Blackmer’s Unraveled.
Ash’s wife, Pleasant (Lisa Emery/Amelia Hensley), announces on her way to dinner her decision to bone up on The Book of Job so as not to be bested by the wise, Torah-knowing Carla. Remembering this, Astrid and Ash believe the Book of Job’s depiction of the need to interrogate human suffering is a great foundation for a new TV show.
Soon a series of Job-like problems descend. They test Ash’s marriage to Pleasant, who’s suspicious of Astrid’s place in Ash’s life; expose the troubled relationship between Ash and Pleasant with their gay, deaf, alcoholic, drug-addicted son, Knox (Russell Harvard/Harold Foxx), who’s engaged in a tremulous affair with a drug-addicted, video-game obsessed Muslim lover, Farhad (Tad Cooley/Anthony Natale); reveal the pain of Carla’s friend, Mariama (Gameela Wright/Alexandra Wailes), an ASL-knowing Jehovah’s Witness with a son on on death row; and disclose Carla’s terminal illness.
Throw into this mix the loss of fortunes in a Ponzi scheme (an apparent allusion to the Madoff scandal), a lost hand, a few broken fingers, a case of hives, a suicide attempt, and, among many other annoyances, quarrels over the use of ASL. Presto: the rationale for tense debates by this mix of believers and atheists on God’s existence and the value of faith in a higher power. If it’s difficult enough to make such material gripping in an Off-Broadway play, however, what could possibly be its fate on commercial TV?
Too little of this mélange of troubled persons, tenuous human connections, substance abuse, disabilities, and catastrophes is particularly moving. Lucas, despite his attempts to encourage hope in the face of despair, or to suggest that personal difficulties are actually blessings, succeeds more in getting these important issues off his chest (he admits in the program to an autobiographical impulse) than in crafting compelling theater.
Sabrina Dennison directed the highly expressive deaf actors, while Tyne Rafaeli handled the speaking (and, often, shouting) ones. Aside from the exquisitely modulated performance of the legendary Lois Smith, only a couple of the other speaking actors rise to the occasion. They all, though, deserve commendation for their relative mastery of ASL.
I Was Most Alive with You
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 14
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, Theater Life.