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Theatre in Review: I Was Most Alive with You (Playwrights Horizons)

Russell Harvard, Marianna Bassham. Photo: Joan Marcus

With this new work, Craig Lucas reasserts his status as the most gorgeously contrarian of American playwrights. At a time when religious belief is so often casually derided, he wants us to at least consider the possibility of the divine. And as so many voices in this fraught moment are raised to the breaking point, demanding justice however they define it, he has news for us all: It doesn't exist, and one's life's work involves coming to terms with this fact without irreparably damaging one's soul. These thorny propositions are probed to remarkable effect in his exhilarating and risk-taking new drama, an iconoclastic and thoroughly original probing of the meaning of tragedy in contemporary life. Lucas doesn't pussyfoot around: I Was Most Alive with You amounts to nothing less than a modern gloss on the Book of Job.

That unhappy figure is represented here by Knox, a young, gay deaf man who is the focal point of an extravagantly complicated and troubled family arrangement. Despite his troubles with addiction -- he is in recovery -- Knox has found a spiritual equilibrium rooted in the satisfaction derived from teaching young deaf kids how to use American Sign Language. But his family is gathering for Thanksgiving dinner, and what a bunch they are: Knox's father, Ash, is a successful television writer who is functionally closer to his creative partner, Astrid, than to his wife, the egregiously misnamed Pleasant. Ash and Astrid's cable series is produced by Carla, Ash's elderly mother, a convert to Judaism (for her late husband, Ash's father) and a figure of almost unnerving serenity. The list of tensions is endless: Ash, too, is a recovering addict, and Pleasant, provocatively, is an enthusiastic drinker. Astrid's love for Ash is an open secret. Astrid is also Knox's best friend, a fact that further inflames Pleasant's jealousy; then again, she has alienated herself from her son, who has partial hearing, by refusing to communicate with him in sign language.

Into this the tinderbox of dissatisfactions Knox introduces Farhad, his new sort-of boyfriend. Farhad was shunned by his Muslim parents for being gay and has gotten by as a hustler and addict. The deeply smitten Knox has taken him in, with the stipulation that they can't sleep together until Farhad gets sober -- a development that seems dauntingly remote. That this was a reckless choice on Knox's part -- a clear violation of the rules of recovery -- is obvious; he justifies it, shakily, by the deep love he is certain he feels for Farhad.

Lucas expertly guides us through this holiday minefield, in which the singing of a Jewish hymn is nearly drowned out by Pleasant, the one goy in the family, belting the hymn "We Gather Together." Feeling thoroughly isolated, she also addresses Knox as "Marcel Marceau" and interrupts a signed conversation, shouting, "We're not Muppets!" The house of cards tumbles when Pleasant reveals a stunning secret that shatters Knox's sense of his place in the family -- he always knew he was adopted, but the terms of it have been carefully hidden -- followed by two blockbuster announcements from Carla that spell disaster for the family as a whole, and an accident, caused by Farhad, leaves Knox deeply damaged and sliding into a vortex of opioids and booze.

Lucas is one of the most fearless playwrights around -- he is almost irresistibly drawn to extremes, and he doesn't shy away from constructing a situation so riddled with tragedy that, in less sure hands, might seem laughable. (Indeed, at one point, two characters find themselves so lumbered with woes that they fall into fits of giggles.) There are so many afflictions -- including one character's psychosomatic skin ailment and a side development having to do with a capital punishment -- that one is tempted to stand up and shout "Stop!" But the center holds, in part because the writing -- which is never, not for a second, exploitative -- reflects such a deep understanding of the characters' sufferings, and because Lucas is always aware that, even for those who refuse to believe, there is always the possibility of saving grace.

The rock upon which Tyne Rafaeli's production is built is Russell Harvard as Knox. Harvard has done fine work before, in Nina Raine's Tribes (another play about a young man and his wildly mixed-up clan) and the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. From the moment we first see him, powerfully signing his daily morning prayer, the actor renders his character's profound idealism and subsequent despair with extraordinary eloquence. He makes scene after scene -- including a knock-down, drag-out battle with Ash -- crackle, and his post-accident fury -- the sheer wounded-animal rage with which he confronts a fickle universe -- is enough to leave one deeply shaken. Equally heartrending is his gnawing desire for Farhad, and the devastating revelation -- "I got high on him!" -- that underscores his loneliness. Harvard's handling of the play's speculative climax, in which we see Knox take desperate action to resolve his agony, leaves the audience on a razor's edge of suspense. The silence in the house at my performance was absolute.

Rafaeli has also drawn excellent work from Michael Gaston as Ash, struggling to hold on to hope, yet frantic with worry over his beloved son; Lois Smith as Carla, quietly handing out tough love to the men in her family even as she faces her own devastating losses with singular gallantry; and Lisa Emery as Pleasant, who, in a tour-de-force moment, speaks the words of a crucial, wounding letter to Ash, then signs it, for Knox's benefit.

Signing is part of the play's central coup de theatre; each member of the cast is shadowed by another actor, versed in ASL, who appears on the gallery level of Arnulfo Maldonaldo's set, signing the dialogue. In addition to being highly theatrical, it is a gracious gesture typical of a play that embraces the audience while forcing it to consider scalding truths.

The most powerful of these is the suggestion that contemporary humankind has fooled itself into thinking that it has control over the universe, that men and women have remade themselves as gods. Alas, it only takes one random wrong turn -- an accident, a grave illness, a sudden abandonment -- for us to fall into bitterness over the breaking of a contract that, in fact, was never made. All one can do, Lucas suggests, is rely on a higher power -- no matter how ill-defined -- or reach deeply within oneself in search of the solace that wisdom can provide. It's a tall order, to be sure, but as Knox and his loved ones discover, any other options are nonexistent.

There are also solid contributions from Marianna Bassham as Astrid, who loves Ash, but not enough to destroy his marriage or challenge his sobriety, and Gameela Wright as a sign language interpreter, hired by Carla, who isn't all that she seems at first. Maldonado's set, depicting the office where Ash and Astrid write, is fine, as are David C. Woolard's costumes, Annie Wiegand's lighting, and Jane Shaw's sound, which includes "You, Me, and the Boatman," by Quiet Company, and a discordant rock guitar chord that, held to a nerve-wracking length, ushers in Knox's dark night of the soul.

I Was Most Alive with You ends on a note of ambiguity, with a phone call that will bring the next big development in the characters' lives. Will it at last allow a note of hope, or is it the worst news yet? Lucas isn't saying, just as he isn't giving out answers about what to do. The next move is up to Ash and the others -- and, come to think of it, us. -- David Barbour

(2 October 2018)

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