Playwrights will sometimes inoculate a play against bad reviews by dosing it with a crucial surprise they trust critics not to spoil. Usually that’s a bad vaccine, though; the surprise reads as an act of desperation that only compounds the disease. Not so in Adam Bock’s A Life, which opened tonight at Playwrights Horizons: I liked it a lot before it made a jarring turn about halfway through, and loved it thereafter. Then I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how that happened — why, despite all the inadvisable risks it takes, it is great — and how to convince you of that without giving too much away.
Not that you can’t guess almost immediately that something is looming. Laura Jellinek’s ingenious set — the low-ceilinged, under-furnished, post-breakup apartment of an ad-agency proofreader named Nate Martin — itself seems vaguely threatening. Beyond that, a play that at first appears to consist only of a direct-address monologue about astrology, even as delivered by the inexhaustibly resourceful David Hyde Pierce, could not possibly sustain itself for 85 minutes. Charmingly, but with a growing sense that something is amiss, Nate relates the long history of his disappointing relationships with men and his subsequent self-help hajj, via books and group therapy and now, yes, the zodiac, to address it. Still, he remains surprised that people, including his best friend, Curtis, think he has “a problem with intimacy.” He utters the phrase as if it were a bizarre anagram or riddle, which is amusing rather than pathetic because, in a world where gay men of 54 might as well be 35, we feel assured that he has plenty of time to figure it out.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who could put this material over better than Pierce; he works every self-cancelling half-sentence and errant thought pattern into a stage naturalism so airtight it approaches the surreal. This is both an expression of Nate’s hermetic character — as further developed in a funny avoidance-approach park-bench interlude with Curtis — and a form of preparation for what comes next. Also preparing the way is a scene in which, for reasons we don’t understand, Nate no longer talks directly to us but moves through ordinary household activities while a pre-recorded voice-over delivers his inner monologue. We are heading somewhere, but where?
Bock, whose earlier, well-received plays include The Receptionist, The Drunken City, and The Thugs, often works the liminal territory in which an unacknowledged reality seems to obtrude into the familiar one. A Life continues that exploration but is both more adventurous and more profound; the familiar reality here is very familiar, thanks to Pierce, and the unacknowledged reality is universal. Finding the right balance so that neither half feels like a MacGuffin for the other, but instead like the mutually revealing mirrors of a fitting room, takes a lot of playwriting control. Bock exerts that control to an almost sadistic degree; some people clearly won’t want to follow an author who keeps slapping them awake. But for those who do, the second half of the play, though it features yet more non-naturalistic surprises and approaches, becomes almost unbearably moving as it forces incompatible ideas onto the same stage. One of the funniest scenes in recent memory takes place here under the most horrifying conditions, which I won’t describe. Its humor does not come from jokes, though; it comes from the almost geological juxtaposition of the quotidian and the eternal.
The quotidian, at least, I can speak of. Though the existential power (and Off Broadway cred) of the play comes from its genre splicing and narrative shocks, what makes it specific and meaningful is its undiminished humanity. Bock’s dialogue, not only for Nate and Curtis but for several other characters who show up later (and whose names I have obscured here, to avoid spoilers), captures the uncanny and sometimes hilarious weirdness of real speech:
FIRST WOMAN: I had to bail my sister Valerie out of jail yesterday. In Queens.
SECOND WOMAN: What’d she do?
FIRST WOMAN: She’d punched a meter-maid guy.
SECOND WOMAN: Oh boy.
FIRST WOMAN: Because he gave her a parking ticket. When I got down there she was like, “I’ve never gotten a ticket. For anything. Not for speeding. Not even for an illegal turn, or going through a red light, not for anything, ever, never!” And she was, “My record was spotless! But that goddamn meter-maid guy didn’t even care! He wouldn’t even listen to me. He coulda let me off with a warning!” I was like “Valerie.”
That scene is brilliantly handled by Marinda Anderson and Nedra McClyde; Lynne McCollough in a couple of other small roles is also excellent. But it’s Brad Heberlee, as Curtis, with the most stage time after Pierce, who brings the full weight of the play’s large gestures down to scale in its final scenes. It is too often the case in cutting-edge plays that the first thing cut is human reality and feeling; Heberlee, Pierce, and the others work in perfect synchrony to fill Bock’s big ideas instead of being cowed by them into insignificance.
Balancing such disparate and volatile elements asks a lot of a director, and Anne Kauffman, in staging A Life, demonstrates nerves of steel. Rather than mitigate the stylistic and narrative discontinuities of the text, she heightens them, even daring at one point to suspend the stage action for several minutes of no movement at all. (In this she is greatly helped by Mikhail Fiksel, whose sound design is stupendous throughout.) Kauffman is making a specialty of plays that express their conflicts structurally rather than in vicious, knives-out interactions; her production of Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, also at Playwrights, was a highlight of 2015. She finds uncanny ways of making sure that in avoiding the familiar techniques of classic drama the drama is not eliminated but enhanced. For those of us lucky enough to enjoy the relative comforts of jobs and homes and social stability, even if marginally, these new kinds of plays offer a meaningful warning: Invisible conflicts exist beyond our dinner tables, and are no less powerful. One of the many great things about A Life is the way it reminds us of our unavoidable part in a very large drama.
A Life is at Playwrights Horizons through November 27.