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I Was Most Alive with You

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - September 24, 2018

The ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus

An unfamiliar sight greets audiences filing into Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater: Many theatergoers are signing each other in their seats, gabbing pre-curtain with their hands just as others are speaking and listening to one another. Craig Lucas says a close relationship he had with a deaf woman 20 years ago inspired him to write I Was Most Alive with You, and Tim Sanford, Playwrights Horizons' artistic director, says Lucas "vowed to tell this story in a way that would feel as accessible to deaf audiences as hearing ones." Inclusion! Here's to it.

Only that doesn't quite happen, and oh, the story Lucas has to tell. As the speaking actors go through their paces downstairs, signing actors in similar-but-not-identical costumes relay the dialog on a balcony circling the mainstage. But, deprived of props and set and space, and forced to face front all the time to communicate, they're not offering an identical experience to what the actors below are doing, they're just signing. If you're hearing-impaired and following the American Sign Language upstairs, you won't see any of the action below. If your eyes wander below to follow the action, you'll miss the signed dialog. Which, given some of the dialog, may not be a bad thing.

I like a lot of Lucas's work, and I wasn't prepared for the unrelieved gloom that pervades I Was Most Alive with You — by the way, what the heck does that title mean, who was most alive with whom? It's a dark, dark tale of struggle and suffering and hopelessness, and virtually no character onstage is happy, ever. We're in L.A. in 2010, and Arnulfo Maldonado's set is supposed to represent the workroom of Ash (Michael Gaston, and Seth Gore signing), a TV writer, who's not very happily married to Pleasant (Lisa Emery and Amelia Hensley), forming the couple who are parents to Knox (Russell Harvard and Harold Foxx). Later it's also supposed to represent Ash and Pleasant's home, Knox's apartment, his grandmother's house, and a hospital room, and it's not that versatile a set.

Ash's writing partner, Astrid (Marianna Bassham and Beth Applebaum), is hot for him and vice versa, but it's platonic, and they're collaborating on the story of what happened to them over the past few months, told in confusing flashback: Knox — gay, deaf, alcoholic — is in love with Farhad (Tad Cooley and Anthony Natale), deaf, an opioid-addicted abuse survivor, though in this universe "in love" means approximately the same thing as "horny." Knox strongly advocates ASL and the well-spoken Farhad rejects it, but that's the least of their worries or conflicts. They're headed for Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Carla, Knox's grandmother (the always reliable Lois Smith, and Kalen Feeney), within whose walls will dwell more addictions and neuroses than they can contain. Ash, too, is a recovering alcoholic, and an ex-convict, for beating up his wife; the ailing Carla takes a lot of pain medication, craved by Farhad; Astrid, in the attractive form of Bassham, is relatively sane, and a peacemaker; and Pleasant is anything but, a sarcastic scold who feels set apart from the rest of the family, both because she's the only non-Jew (though nothing in the behavior or appearance of this cast reads as Semitic) and because they're fervent believers and she's not. Also on hand is Carla's caretaker Mariama (Gameela Wright and Alexandria Wailes), whose son, on death row in Texas, won't speak to her. A fraught household, I'll tell you. Family recriminations, drinking, drugging, revelations of past evasions and lies, impending financial ruin, random Biblical discourse, a disaster I'll try not to reveal, and Act One curtain.

And then something must happen over intermission, because in Act Two so many of the characters have utterly changed. Knox, previously a sweet, caring young man, now facing awful new challenges, is miserable and confrontational, and speaking out loud (a salute to the hardworking Harvard, who makes the transition as plausible as possible). Farhad, feeling guilty over the previous calamity, is suddenly attentive, helpful, and willing to use ASL. Pleasant is now a responsible mom, albeit one who feels she'll serve everyone best by just disappearing. Ash . . . well, Ash is hard to figure out, and Gaston and Gore provide few clues into what's eating at him, though God knows he has issues. Then the ultimate copout: an ending that we're not sure is really happening, or an invention of the two TV writers, or both or neither or what.

Lucas's program notes suggest that he feels deeply about this play; it's a shame that he's so unable to convey a clear message, and that the characters bounce from misfortune to misfortune so arbitrarily, with accompanying emotions that don't always fit, and we can't always tell when we're supposed to take things literally. Tyne Rafaeli's direction does little to clear the mysteries up, and she makes simple staging mistakes, such as freezing characters in silhouette on one side of the stage when they're not needed. Daniel Kluger's original music is lush and cinematic, which is nice in itself but doesn't mesh neatly with the material, and David C. Woolard's costumes are barely noticeable.

One applauds Lucas for wanting to give an underrepresented minority ample stage time, and to shine a light on issues that haven't been aired much since Children of a Lesser God (which itself looked pretty clunky last season) — the struggles of the hearing-impaired, and how tightly some tie up their identities in their signing. But he's cluttered the narrative, stuffing it with so much misery there's no room for anything else. He writes in a foreword to the script, "It goes without saying, but I'll risk stating it: Despair is anti-dramatic. Feeling sorry for oneself is always the wrong choice." After which we're treated to two and a half hours of despair and characters feeling sorry for themselves. That, and a great deal of discussion of does God exist, and do we possess free will, and the Book of Job. Whose patience is required to sit through this.

I Was Most Alive with You
Through October 14
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42 Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral