L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry NewsLSA DirectoryEventsContacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Business News + Industry Support

-People News

-Product News

-Theatre in Review

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

-A Theatre Project Book

-PLASA Events

Theatre in Review: The Best We Could (a family tragedy) (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Frank Wood, Aya Cash. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

For a play to qualify as a tragedy, the people in it must, at a minimum, be interesting. That's the problem, with The Best We Could, a road trip drama that steers uncertainly toward a big revelation that destroys a family of three. The trouble is that playwright Emily Feldman is more adept at theatrical devices than in delineating characters whose dubious choices inflict pain on their loved ones. Who are these people? And why should one care about them?

Having descended through a series of failed creative endeavors, 36-year-old Ella, a yoga instructor at a rehab facility in LA, has perfected the art of living joylessly. She rails against her toxic ex-girlfriend. She fights endlessly on the phone with her mother. And, as we are told, "She's working on an illustrated book about giving up on your dreams," a work that at least one editor has dismissed as "an impenetrable Marxist screed." But Ella insists she saw a market niche: "I didn't see anything out there for kids debunking the myth that hard work will lead to a better life." This is pretty funny stuff as far as it goes, but it's not easy to create interest in a character who wears her disappointment so obviously.

Ella's parents, Lou and Peg, live in New Jersey; he was "a senior investigator at a biomedical research institute" and is bored and frustrated in retirement. Peg is a nag, a scold, a dedicated bearer of bad news; the play opens with a tedious comic routine in which she repeatedly shouts into the phone "Are you sitting down?", to Ella's increasing frustration. Because the family dog has died, Lou flies to California, picks up Ella, and they drive cross-country to collect a rescue pooch. (They don't have needy pets on the East Coast?) But even this relatively simple task gets entangled in family politics. Peg, worried that Lou is clinically depressed, invents a lie about Ella coming to New York to meet book publishers, an implausible tactic that puts her daughter in an impossible position and makes Lou look like a bit of a dope.

Much of The Best We Could highlights Feldman's rather too-cute sense of humor. A visit to Marc, Lou's former colleague, is dominated by Marc's wife, Karen, a native of Orlando who affects a French accent as thick as wheel of brie. (If most of the play's characters are one step above the sitcom level, Karen is straight out of an SNL sketch, and not one of the better examples.) Lou religiously collects snow globes and lectures Ella in a dotty-dad way about mortgages and the importance of keeping her resume up to date; he even urges her to get pregnant before "her eggs are gone for good," never mind that Ella lacks a partner and disposable income. At times, the action is frankly confusing: If I have it right, Ella leaves her parents' house, ostensibly heading into Manhattan for a meeting with her "publisher" but actually flying to Denver to confront Marc about a job denied to Lou. She then returns a couple of hours later, for the play's climax. That's quite a full day!

What Ella learns from Marc is deeply upsetting, casting a new and more sinister light on Lou's apparent friendliness with female strangers. But the twee humor of the previous scenes provides a weak foundation for this new revelation. Indeed, it might be devastating if Lou were anything more than a two-dimensional duffer, a walking dad joke. In the end, however, the play makes no attempt at understanding him; The Best We Could is all about Ella and her inability to accept her parents' flaws. Feldman gives her play the Our Town treatment, placing it on a bare stage with a narrator figure, named Maps, who cues the actors and plays various small roles. The action is self-conscious to a fault; facing the big reveal about Lou, Ella cries out, "I want to do a comic ending!" By then, it's hard not to feel that the playwright is being just a wee bit manipulative.

Feldman's most vivid writing -- Mount Rushmore is described as "a four-headed sarcophagus, etched in the image of four dead men who did more than four terrible things" -- is more descriptive than dramatic, and her characters are notably thin, especially Peg, a one-note shrew who defeats the considerable skills of Constance Shulman. As Lou, Frank Wood appears to be marking time until his impressive meltdown, laying bare his confusion and fury over a world that has no use for him. Aya Cash tries to keep it light as Ella, but the character's endlessly aggrieved manner can be a trial. As Maps, Maureen Sebastian gets to show off her technical skills, delivering various character sketches. The best work comes from Brian D. Coats as Marc, especially when he gently explains to Ella why Lou is unemployable. Daniel Aukin's direction is solid enough, considering the script's uncertain tone.

Lael Jellinek's set features with an oriental carpet and piles of stage risers, with artfully artless lighting by Matt Frey. (For example, those "worklights" above the stage are really color-changing LEDs, allowing for various shifts of mood.) Anita Yavich's rehearsal room costumes are also true to each character. The sound by Kate Marvin includes a charming gag involving a dog picking up a squeak toy as well appropriate music for a scene set in a Zumba studio.

But despite the august subtitle, The Best We Could is an unremarkable dysfunctional family drama gussied up with theatrical tricks that don't really elevate it. Ella's story is sad, but tragic? Hardly. She and her family are too run-of-the-mill for that. --David Barbour

(7 March 2023)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook