theater review

Theater Review: Craig Lucas’s I Was Most Alive With You Aims High

From I Was Most Alive With You, at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: Joan Marcus

Craig Lucas’s I Was Most Alive With You, now at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Tyne Rafaeli, is a complex and far-reaching project. It’s a family saga, a riff on a Biblical tale, and, structurally, both a memory play and an artists-making-art play. It combines weighty, ultrapersonal topics — faith, addiction, catastrophic loss — with an intricate formal goal: Its story involves both hearing and Deaf characters, and the play is performed simultaneously in both spoken English and ASL, along with projected supertitles that convey not only the dialogue but key moments in the sound design (working in tandem with Rafaeli is Sabrina Dennison as director of artistic sign language). I’d call it “ambitious,” but that word often feels like code to me — critic-speak for “had a lot of ideas and didn’t succeed.” It should be no snub to say that I Was Most Alive With You does indeed juggle many ideas and aspirations, and that as with many an expansive project, some moments shine while others are less finely polished.

In part, the play is the result of Lucas’s relationships with members of the Deaf community (with a big ‘D’ — the capital makes a difference), most recently with the actor Russell Harvard, whose performance in Nina Raine’s Tribes inspired Lucas to create a play for him. You can see why. Harvard is a hugely charismatic actor — roiling and raw, intensely vulnerable with an edge of menace, like a wounded alpha wolf. (It’s no surprise that Harvard played Jerry when Deaf West Theatre, where he’s a founding member, produced Albee’s At Home at the Zoo.) He anchors the production, giving its big ideas, which can at times feel rhetorical or on the nose, a compelling human center around which to orbit.

Harvard plays Knox, the adult adopted son of Ash — a successful L.A. TV writer and now-sober alcoholic — and Pleasant, a smart, suffering woman who self-medicates with sarcasm and wine and does her best to play up the irony of her given name. Knox is Deaf, gay, and, like his father, an addict in recovery. And when we first meet him, he declares himself grateful for all three of these “things I used to think weren’t gifts at all … Each,” he tells his family at a Thanksgiving gathering, “brought me to great clarity.”

At Thanksgiving, both Knox and his father seem to have found peace. They’re sober, Knox is teaching ASL classes and has fallen in love, and Ash is finding solace in a belief in a “Higher Power” (“call it Fate, call it Force of Nature …”) and fulfillment in his writing partnership with Astrid, a creative spitfire who’s become an honorary family member. But like much of Lucas’s play, this Thanksgiving celebration is a memory. It’s the last piece of the recent past where everything was all right — as well as the moment when everything went wrong.

The Book of Job sits underneath I Was Most Alive With You like a skeleton where the bones poke right through. The parable of suffering and humility doesn’t simply undergird Lucas’s play — which proceeds to rain down misfortunes on its central father and son — but is explicitly referenced throughout by two of its characters. When the play begins, Ash (Michael Gaston) and Astrid (Marianna Bassham) are meeting for the first time in months. They’re trying to produce a new script, or at least a new idea, before they lose their insurance. “Job,” muses Astrid, flipping through a Bible, “Maybe there’s something for us …”

Lucas describes his own shock upon first encountering the story of Job in a note in the show’s program, and I Was Most Alive With You is, among its other strands, definitely a watching-the-playwright-at-work play. There’s a distancing effect to that, especially in the first act, despite the emotionally charged subject matter, and the back-and-forth between Ash and Astrid can sometimes feel forced. Gaston gives a credible performance as a man struggling to keep his regrets and terrors at bay — and his career, family, and sobriety from going up in smoke — but Bassham pushes her character’s straight-shooting pluckiness a little hard. Rafaeli lets her get away with a fair amount of sawing the air, and Lucas has tasked her with pronouncing a lot of the play’s Big Idea lines, which means her scenes with Gaston feel driven less by natural chemistry than by thematic obligation. It’s a tricky thing to dramatize the creative process: Meta-“Eureka!” moments that are meant to be exhilarating can land with a thud of self-consciousness. As if one of the Tyrone sons were to gaze out over the footlights and sigh, “It’s a strange and complicated thing … this long day’s journey into night.”

The more Lucas’s play branches out and away from Ash and Astrid’s shoptalk, the more it takes off — but the twist is that they’re still the ones behind it all. They’re our storytellers, and everything we see comes back to them. “Writers shamelessly exploit loved-ones’ humiliating exploits but are otherwise dull,” quips Pleasant, remembering her husband’s half-joking warning to her on their first date. Astrid, who’s more enthusiastic and less snarky, has another take. “Storytelling,” she declares, “What is it but trying to make sense out of chaos? And that’s what makes us human.”

Arnulfo Maldonado’s boxy, somewhat spartan set provides a clever physical solution to the play’s bilingual presentation: It’s got an upper level, a wraparound balcony where a group of ASL-speaking performers referred to as the “shadow cast” gently echo the blocking of the actors below, providing a literal second layer to the performances. The set’s main floor also gives an immediate clue as to the play’s only reliable reality: We are in a writers’ room, with fluorescent lights, long rolling table, secondhand furniture, grungy kitchenette, and brainstorming bulletin-board wall. As Ash and Astrid decide to build drama out of experience — to write something by “[saying] what happened” at and after that fateful Thanksgiving — the elements of their workspace transform to show us scenes from the recent past. Rafaeli and her designers approach these shifts in time and space sometimes subtly and sometimes not (those fluorescents are always a smack back into writer-world), and gradually one of the most fascinating and unsettling aspects of I Was Most Alive With You hits home: Any scene that doesn’t involve Ash or Astrid is pure conjecture, not memory but dramatic speculation. Knox, Pleasant, Knox’s lover Farhad, Ash’s mother Carla (a kindly Lois Smith), the family friend Mariama (Gameela Wright, playing dignified piety) — to some extent, all are imaginary. They’re real, but what we see are their fictionalized selves. They are the loved ones whose lives are being … exploited? Exalted? — at any rate, used in a creative attempt to confront the chaos.

Lucas’s first act is taken up with recalling and reliving the inciting events of Thanksgiving. As is usually the case with family gatherings, there’s a lot of potential dynamite under the cozy surface. For complicated reasons, Pleasant has refused to learn ASL, and Knox’s not-quite-boyfriend Farhad —who’s deaf with a small ‘d’, cynical, frankly sexual, and an open drug-user— knows it but won’t speak it. Pleasant is carrying a host of resentments, toward Ash, toward his mother, and towards Astrid (“I hope to Christ you two are sleeping together,” she snaps, “It would be one glimmer of love in my life to know my beloved husband and his very best friend are happy”). And Carla — the magnanimous matriarch who’s hosting the party and who has long served as producer on her son’s hit show — has a couple of heavy secrets. When enough accusations and painful revelations bubble to the surface, Knox makes a stormy exit, leading to a grisly middle-of-the-night car accident that wrecks his ability to communicate using his hands. “Bam,” whispers Ash, in desolate shock. And this being a latter-day meta-Job, the hits just keep on coming.

As Knox, Harvard must communicate entirely in ASL in Act 1, and then mostly in spoken English in Act 2. The part is an emotional marathon, and as Knox’s suffering and his subsequent temptations — toward drink, toward despair — move center stage, Harvard snaps the play into focus. In his performance, I Was Most Alive With You locates its power. Lucas cautions against actors playing self-pity in his stage directions — “Feeling sorry for oneself is always the wrong choice,” he writes — and as Knox, Harvard has the toughest row to hoe in terms of turning devastation into dramatic energy. He’s got a lurking recklessness that’s both gripping and scary: He lets us see the devil creeping back in through the lacerations made in Knox’s resolve. When he punches through a wall in a rage — fracturing two fingers and thereby rendering himself entirely unable to sign — we can sense the awful truth of the gesture: how a soul in pain inflicts even more punishment on an already injured body, isolating itself out of a misplaced sense of unworthiness, failure, and shame.

As Farhad, who feels responsible for Knox’s plight and is fighting his own demons, Tad Cooley gives a smart performance that powerfully balances Harvard’s. The actors have palpable chemistry, and Cooley’s Farhad is aloof where Knox is vulnerable, provocative and playful where Knox is pent-up and earnest. He and Pleasant (a sharp Lisa Emery, emanating bitter sadness like a personal cloud) provide the voice of doubt in the play. And though the Bible — and at times Lucas, in his playwright’s note — treats such skepticism as something to move through and past on one’s way toward embracing a “higher power,” it strikes me as necessary both for good drama, which requires conflict, and for life. Doubt without faith is mean and solipsistic. Faith without doubt is inflexible and maniacal. In watching I Was Most Alive With You — which raises its hand for faith but in its best moments reveals how inextricable it is from doubt — I thought of the large-spirited Canadian author Robertson Davies, who advises approaching the world with “the Shakespearean cast of thought. That is to say, a fine credulity about everything, kept in check by a lively skepticism about everything … [which] keeps you constantly alert to every possibility.”

In Lucas’s second act, as his characters’ straits get more dire, his writing grows freer, more muscular, less debate team-y. Before intermission, characters often engage in dialogue like this: “So, you’re saying you think fact follows our fictions?” or “You’re saying [that] entertainment has responsibilities towards minorities?” or “What is faith? …Where did we come up with the idea that there are gods?” It’s less dramatic than Socratic, a series of arguments that aren’t quite elegant enough to incorporate the points Lucas is interested in without his overtly stating them. Added to this, Rafaeli’s got to stage the long Thanksgiving scene in one of those imaginary living rooms where the furniture is all arranged in a convenient half circle and everyone cheats outward to talk. It’s not an option at Playwrights, but I wondered how the family dynamics and flow of argument might land differently, and perhaps less rhetorically, in a less presentational set-up.

Ultimately, I Was Most Alive With You feels like half head and half heart, and while those proportions may well be intentional, the elements themselves are less alchemically merged than laid out side by side. It makes for a varied viewing experience — a series of connections and disconnects, undeniably powerful moments alongside periods of dropped signal. Harvard’s central performance is its bastion of strength, along with Cooley’s as the minor harmony to Knox’s melody. The play is most alive with them.

I Was Most Alive With You is at Playwrights Horizons through October 14.

Theater: Craig Lucas’s I Was Most Alive With You Aims High