Review: Speaking (and Signing) of Job, in ‘I Was Most Alive With You’

Review: Speaking (and Signing) of Job, in ‘I Was Most Alive With You’


What is the point of faith in a world of misfortune?

That’s the question at the heart of “I Was Most Alive With You,” the chaotic yet profound new play by Craig Lucas that opened on Monday at Playwrights Horizons. And if you don’t think chaos and profundity make sense together onstage, you probably won’t be thrilled by Mr. Lucas’s worldview either, which is that of an incurable romantic flailing his way through a doomed crush on a bad date.

For that matter, you may not care for the rich too-muchness of his source and touchstone, the Book of Job, in which God allows the faith of his most blameless believer to be tested by a pileup of outrageous adversity. It is but one of Mr. Lucas’s sad, dead-on insights, in a play that’s full of them, that no one is really blameless, and yet everyone is Job.

What are the adversities assailing the family at the center of “I Was Most Alive With You”? Not the obvious ones you might expect from the givens. Ash, a 60-ish screenwriter, is a recovering drug and alcohol addict whose marriage to the ironically named Pleasant has not recovered with him. Their son, Knox, can top that: He, too, is a recovering addict, but gay and also, as his father describes him, big-D Deaf.

Yet neither Ash (Michael Gaston) nor Knox (Russell Harvard) experiences these permanent conditions as adversities: “They are gifts,” Knox signs. (He can speak well, but for much of the play chooses not to.) “Each brought me to great clarity.”

The real adversities — hives, cancer, crashes both vehicular and financial — arrive during the course of the play. They involve not only Knox, Ash and Pleasant (Lisa Emery) but also Ash’s writing partner, Astrid (Marianna Bassham); his mother, Clara (Lois Smith); Clara’s friend Mariama (Gameela Wright); and Knox’s friend Farhad (Tad Cooley). Farhad is “small-d” deaf (he rejects sign language) and an active drug user; naturally, Knox is in love with him.

Because the play is so intimately concerned with hearing and deafness, both literally and figuratively, and because it is designed to be fully accessible, it also includes a “shadow” cast of seven more actors. The production’s director, Tyne Rafaeli, places them on the mezzanine level of Arnulfo Maldonado’s set, in costumes by David C. Woolard that coordinate with those of the cast downstairs.

Not otherwise matched by race or physique to their counterparts, they achieve the status of archetypes as they move through narrower versions of the main action and sign the words that the others speak. This is often haunting, especially when Mr. Lucas overtly varies the spoken and signed scripts. Aside from the beauty of the signing actors’ delivery — the director of artistic sign language is Sabrina Dennison — they provide, even for a hearing audience, a channel of information that sometimes feels deeper and more direct than the spoken one. Supertitles provide yet another.

But it’s a lot of information to process, and the play’s fracturing of time does not make it any easier. In the framing story, set in March 2010, Ash and Astrid return to work after various calamities have kept them from it. Looking to the Book of Job to help make sense of all that has happened, and as a possible template for their new project, they flash back to the previous Thanksgiving, and events since then, while continuing to write in the present tense.

That frame feels flimsy to me. Even if it were sturdier, I’m not sure its familiar depiction of the creative process adds much to a play that is already juggling addiction, orientation, hearing status, religion and the most intransigent philosophical conundrums to bedevil humanity since its first “Why am I here?” By elevating Ash over Knox as the play’s Job figure, it also allows Mr. Lucas to cop out of a clear ending. The powerful version we are shown is posited as one of Ash and Astrid’s several possible fictions.

Happily, the flashback material is so oceanic and turbulent that the frame cannot distance us from it for long. We are always eager to dive back into its bracing stories. How can we not want to know more about Clara, a convert to Judaism who took over her late husband’s business and produced a hit television series? Or about Mariama, a Jehovah’s Witness who can credibly say that she is “grateful almost every day for the lack of justice” in the world?

It has always been Mr. Lucas’s gift to reveal the awfulness behind things that look charming and to make that awfulness compelling. In “I Was Most Alive With You,” he takes those gifts about as far as they can go, at the risk of a certain degree of confusion. And though his plays have been growing progressively less ruly over the years — from “Blue Window,” which also takes place at a dinner party freighted with disaster, to “Prelude to a Kiss” to “Small Tragedy” — he has never seemed as passionate as he does here about making a point.

The point — straight from Alcoholics Anonymous — is humility: We cannot know, let alone gain anything of value from, trying to understand the universe’s will. God might as well be saying, “Mind your own business about what I’m doing,” Mr. Lucas, himself in recovery, writes in a program note. “Focus on your own affairs.”

In doing so, Mr. Lucas (like Tony Kushner) proves that neatness can be a lesser virtue when the messiest issues are at stake. Nevertheless, I wonder whether “I Was Most Alive With You,” first produced at the Huntington Theater in Boston in 2015, has reached its final state. Ms. Rafaeli’s staging is a marvel of polyphony but leaves many moments visually murky or even hard to locate. Annie Wiegand’s lighting still faces the challenge of illuminating two plays at once, on different levels.

And though the cast already features some standout performances — by Ms. Emery, Mr. Harvard, Ms. Wright and (as always) Ms. Smith — I would like to see what they and the rest of the company can do after a few more weeks of performance. “I Was Most Alive With You” must have been a beast, if a joy, to rehearse. It is certainly both to take in.

Follow Jesse Green on Twitter: @JesseKGreen.



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