by Marilyn Lester
Incredibly, in a scant 85 minutes, playwright Adam Bock manages to examine, parse and possibly explain the entire meaning of life. What he reveals foremost in this new play is that life is a paradox. This nugget of truth is scarcely new information, but the exposition of opposites herein scrutinized is a beautiful, considered and rangy one. A Life, so very aptly named, looks at the immense and complex as well as the small and banal. This life could be yours or mine – and it’s both exquisitely precious and cosmically inconsequential. Bock has constructed a miracle of a mirror that touches the everyman in all of us.
Helming the play is the stupendously talented David Hyde Pierce, a naturalistic actor who has us immediately believing we’re sitting in the New York City living room of one Nate Martin, human being of the gay persuasion, who happens to be dealing with yet another relationship break-up. Nate has a lot of friends, a good life and a tasteful mid-century living room that would be the envy of any aspirant to good city-living. Yet, Nate is lonely. He questions his place in the cosmos, and he does it with the most amusing and disarming monologue on the value of astrology that anyone will ever hear in or out of a theater. Astrology is science, he declares, and it explains everything (maybe). Nate is vulnerable and courageous, resigned and hopeful, full of doubts yet convinced, and wholly likeable through the magic of Hyde Pierce’s portrayal of him. It’s the actor’s ability to render his character guileless and transparent that touches the Nate within each of us.
It’s in the second scene, with bestie Curtis (sensitively played by Brad Heberlee) that the technology of A Life becomes very important. Sound and lighting create a park in which the two friends talk about the things buddies are apt to discuss: the hunkiness of passersby and Nate’s breakup. Back in his apartment, Nate goes about his business, a pre-recorded stream of consciousness thought process revealing the banality of things to be done. Then comes the game-changer, a plot point that can’t be hinted at. Nate has a fatal heart attack, and the aftermath of his demise becomes brutally real. How long does Nate lie undiscovered… it’s a John Cage moment, a long while of unrelieved stillness on Hyde Pierce’s part, through a series of genius lighting changes and sound effects (created by Matt Frey and Mikhail Fiksel, respectively). At last there’s activity when Curtis is let into the apartment to make the unhappy discovery.
Art poignantly imitates life from this point forward, with Lynne McCollough, Marinda Anderson and Nedra McClyde on hand to effectively portray the various players who will handle the body in death. The most extended scene in this regard features Anderson and McClyde respectfully preparing the corpse for funerary viewing. The most amazing set change (of two) happens here, with a full lilt of the living room upended and shifting back. Laura Jellinek has made imaginative use of the space to create this clever mortuary illusion. An amazingly still Hyde Pierce could easily garner an award for “most realistic corpse.” As the women work at their uncommon craft, they discuss the most ordinary life events imaginable, including an amusing discourse on the bromeliad. Nate’s funeral follows, which includes some pre-corded musings of the deceased, emanating from the ethers.
In a brief but effective final scene, A Life makes a declaration and supposition that life will go on for the living – and the dead. Playwright Bock’s subtlety of text yields great profundity of after-thought. The play and it’s observations of Life and its themes of doubt/faith, despair/hope, knowing/unknowing, truth/denials, permanence/transience, and more, inspire rumination – the sign of a deliciously successful work of art.
Anne Kauffman’s direction is crisp and smart. Kauffman keeps the action moving at a pace that’s active without being frenetic. Costume design by Jessica Pabst is both creative and true-to-life. Production stage manager is Erin Gioia Albrecht.
A Life, September 30 through November 27
Playwright’s Horizons, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, 212-564-1235,
www.playwrightshorizons.org – 85 minutes
Photos: Joan Marcus