Anne Kauffman’s staging of Adam Bock’s A Life at Playwrights Horizons is far more elaborate than one might expect for such an otherwise slight play. Most noteworthy is Laura Jellinek’s set of a New York apartment that, after the plot’s big surprise, slowly rotates backward so that its high-hat-lit ceiling becomes the back wall of a new locale. (Japan’s kabuki theatre has a similar technique.)
The “life” of the title belongs to Nate Martin, a 54-year-old proofreader—gay, lonely, and depressed—played with naturalistic honesty by the always engaging, perfectly cast David Hyde Pierce. In the gently humorous, half-hour monologue that begins the play, Nate rambles on to us about things he needs to get off his chest, as if we’re an extension of a group therapy session.
He tells of his loss of “faith in everything I’d ever learned” until that faith was reawakened with the discovery of the “science” of astrology; using a chart, he explains it in detail, but also expresses his doubts about its validity. He informs us of his history of broken romantic relationships, his fear of love and his difficulty finding it, the need to be truthful, and his problems with intimacy. In one of the best moments (probably a Kauffman touch) he adds something to his to-do list only after turning page after page in a notebook to find an empty spot.
Nate’s chief support is his gay friend (but not lover), Curtis (nicely played by a comforting Brad Heberlee). He first appears with Nate in Central Park (effected by washing the apartment in green light), where the pair converse while ogling the muscles on the cute guys running by. Nate confesses: “I liked going to the gym. I liked wearing workout clothes. I liked saying hi to the guys at the front desk. I liked looking at Randy…. I just didn’t like the whole ‘working out’ part.”
Back in his apartment, Nate experiences a totally unexpected game-changer I can’t reveal, followed by an unusual scene in which, for a daringly long time, there’s no movement at all as Matt Frey’s beautiful lighting shows time passing, and Mikhail Fikset creates a detailed soundscape of what’s happening in the world outside.
Soon after, the scenery has the first of its big moments, and the focus shifts to the effect of Nate’s life on others (well-played by Marinda Anderson, Nedra McClyde, and Lynne McCollough, each in more than one role). Pierce’s role, meanwhile, now requires of him a tour de force of physical control. From this point on, A Life, for all its satirical and emotional highlights, is anticlimactic. Since there’s still so much of it before the final curtain, the 85-minute play assumes a split personality.
Bock seems to be saying that Nate’s life, so ordinary, is just like any other in its search for love and happiness; regardless of its ups and downs, there’s no controlling what fate has in store, so if you’ve got things to do, you’d better do them; if there are things to change, change them. Otherwise, you’ll be asking, along with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”
416 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through November 27
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).