Craig Lucas Has a Job Off-Broadway, and We Pay For It

The playwright's heart is in the right place. The play isn’t quite.

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Below (l to r): Tad Cooley, Michael Gaston, Lisa Emery, Russell Harvard. Above (l to r): Anthony Natale, Seth Gore, Amelia Hensley, Harold Foxx in "I Was Most Alive With You." Photo: Joan Marcus.

What to make of Craig Lucas’ latest play I Was Most Alive with You? Much of the time the playwright is very serious about his subject matter. Sometimes he’s serious to the brink of pretentiousness. Sometimes he inches a bit beyond that brink.

Let me state immediately that I often have trouble with Lucas’ works. However, I am an unabashed fan of The Dying Gaul, Prelude to a Kiss and the 1989 AIDS film Longtime Companion, which was directed by his then-longtime collaborator, the late Norman René.

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But I’m having trouble again with I Was Most Alive with You, which operates on two rather blunt conceits. The first is that Craig has composed the play for essentially two casts — an ensemble of speaking actors, and a troupe of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. Some of the speaking actors also sign; most of the ASL interpreters do more emoting than a typical interpreter that you might encounter at a signed performance of a typical play.

The casts at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons appear on separate levels supplied by set designer Arnulfo Maldonado: speaking actors on the floor, signers on an U-shaped catwalk. The upstairs area is outfitted with doors matching those down below. Thus, the ASL interpreters can enter and exit at the same time as their speaking counterparts.

According to a program note in which Lucas reveals his despair about the human condition, the second conceit is that the action is keyed to the Book of Job, where, we all know, God tests a good man’s faith by inflicting him with no end of personal disasters.

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At first glance, Lucas’ victim is Ash (Michael Gaston), a comedy writer married to Pleasant (Lisa Emery) and professionally partnered with Astrid (Marianna Bassham). These chortle-meisters have given themselves a not-so-funny assignment for their next project: updating the story of Job to the present day.

The home life of Ash, who is Jewish (Pleasant is not) is initially the object of our scrutiny. Ash and Pleasant have an adopted son, Knox (Russell Harvard), who’s deaf and who, despite being taught to speak by his mother, obstinately prefers to sign. Knox wants his parents to sign, too, which Ash goes along with. Pleasant, however, adamantly refuses.

Do pay attention to the names. Ash has a sour implication. Pleasant as a wife and mother is anything but. And Knox feels like a homonym. Indeed, Knox’s name feels like an allusion to the Job-like afflictions that Lucas inflicts on this unfortunate family — the hard knocks, if you will, that are visited upon them and also on everyone with whom they associate. This includes Ash’s understanding mother, Carla (the legendary, here understated Lois Smith); Knox’s drug-addicted boyfriend Farhad (Tad Cooley); and Carla’s sympathetic attendant, Mariama (Gameela Wright). It’s curious that Astrid, who does most of the referring to the Bible for more hints about Job, is spared.

Without going into each and every one of the many trials and tribulations devised by Lucas, the playwright makes it in-your-face plain that it’s not only Ash whom God is targeting but almost every character. For a single, clouded example, something happens to Knox that severely hampers his ability to sign. It may even feel like Knox, not Ash, is the Job here.

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So Lucas, in his melancholy state, might have it that we’re all Job. His hammering away at this spectral notion is such that when, at the denouement, he holds out a faint glimmer of hope, the ploy registers as more of a sop to the audience than evidence of his convictions.

At that point, however, audiences may well have already pulled away from this unrelenting tale — despite some committed histrionics by both sets of performers. Under Tyne Rafaeli’s unsparing direction, Gaston, Emery, Harvard, Bassham, Smith, Farhad and Wright as the speaking actors play the Job-like with gritty aplomb. (Harvard is a founder of Deaf Austin West.) To a large extent, the upstairs interpreters — Seth Gore, Beth Applebaum, Amelia Hensley, Harold Foxx, Anthony Natale, Kalen Feeney and Alexandria Wailes — mirror the lower actors’ movements. (Applebaum gives an especially emotive turn.)

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Which brings us back to the ASL component of I Was Most Alive with You. It might even be the most pressing point that Lucas wishes to make. With seven signers complementing the action, he’s reminding us that signing is a significant a form of human expression — equal to, if not even greater than, vocal speech in some ways. The trouble is that Lucas is saying it and saying it and saying it. Just as the playwright is excessive about the Job aspects of the play, it’s all too excessive; sadly the signers are also excessively distracting. Can each group be in equal focus all the time? Director Rafaeli thinks so. I’m not so sure.

The playwright’s heart is in the right place. The play, which was previously produced by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2015, isn’t quite.