by Michael Bracken
There are worse places to find source material than the Bible. Just ask Craig Lucas, whose compelling but crowded I Was Most Alive with You, at Playwrights Horizons, takes the Book of Job, shakes it up, and propels it into the twenty-first century. Job is, of course, the Old Testament poster child for the adage that no good deed goes unpunished. And then some.
I Was Most Alive is played on a fairly open, simply furnished set that functions as an office, house, hospital, even automobile. Designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, the airy space is flanked and overhung by a wide catwalk.
On the main, lower level, speaking actors portray two deaf characters who often talk and five hearing characters who sometimes sign. On the catwalk, signing actors physically “shadow” the actors below and translate their spoken dialogue into ASL (American Sign Language). Projections of the written word are also used when appropriate. The production is accessible to the non-hearing as to the hearing.
But back to Job. His spirit is everywhere but is especially present in two characters. Ash (Michael Gaston), is a television writer who loses his wife and his savings as he watches his son fall off the wagon. Yet Ash and his wise-cracking wife, Pleasant (a laser-sharp Lisa Emery), were not exactly close, and he still has his writing partner, Astrid (Marianna Bassham), with whom he is emotionally if not sexually intimate.
His gay, deaf son, Knox (Russell Harvard) makes a better candidate for Job surrogate. His right hand is severed in a car accident, and his young lover, Farhad (Tad Cooley), who sleeps on the couch, leaves him shortly thereafter. He has no apparent savings to lose and no Astrid to fill the hole left by his mother’s sudden departure.
As the play begins, Ash and Knox, both former alcoholics, are sober. Farhad is a substance abuser. We’re told Pleasant is not an alcoholic, but she certainly drinks too much. Sobriety is fluid.
The magnificent Lois Smith is Carla, Ash’s mother. Full of grace and quiet authority, Carla also loses her savings, as does Astrid, all having invested in a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. (It’s 2009.) Carla has cancer and Mariama (Gameela Wright), whose son is on death row for murder, helps care for her.
So all is not sweetness and light in the land of milk and honey, otherwise known as California. Yet for all its karma of catastrophe, I Was Most Alive doesn’t seem grim or heavy. Lucas has often displayed a talent for deflecting tragedy in the darkest of situations with dialogue, characters, and attitudes quirky enough to distract from the bad news. So while this play is less comic than some of his other work, it’s still hard to take completely seriously.
Its structure also helps keep it from descending into despair. It’s a teleplay in the making, positioned as Astrid and Ash’s attempt to make a pitchable television drama out of the last few months of their intertwined lives. So we’re a step removed as we jump back and forth between what happened last November and the writing team’s present efforts to create a script.
I Was Most Alive has a lot of moving parts, and director Tyne Rafaeli keeps them well-oiled. The gears shift from black comedy to high drama and present to past frequently and smoothly.
Annie Wiegand’s lighting, elegant throughout, absolutely glows in a scene toward the end, when Knox is upstage in a gleaming white bathroom, door open, and the rest of the stage is in semi-darkness. It’s beatific.
The play’s central hearing vs. deaf struggle, not necessarily resolved, is certainly well-developed. The ambiguous love lives of father and son (What is Ash’s relationship to Pleasant? And why does Fahrad sleep on the couch?) are probably best left that way. But the sober vs. user motif is half-baked. Lip service is paid but there’s no real exploration. With so many drunks and druggies around, a little more attention would be welcome.
That being said, I Was Most Alive is often riveting and never boring. It’s just a few steps short of twelve.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Through October 14 at the Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd
Street. www.phnyc.org. 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission.