In Craig Lucas’s I Was Most Alive with You, two down-on-their-luck television writers mine recent personal tragedy for their latest project, hoping, with the Book of Job as their inspirational guide, to set both their careers and the universe in order. Although suffering has touched each of them, Ash (Michael Gaston), a late middle-aged recovering alcoholic in a bad marriage, is the much more forlorn figure. Like Job, Ash has hit one of those rough patches in life, where, if you’re a person of faith, you might start to suspect that your higher power doesn’t like you very much.
Of course, wondering why a supposedly loving supreme deity does nothing to help you through your earthly pain, is well-trod dramatic territory, which to be compelling either requires a playwright with a serious theological grounding or someone capable of turning the entire subject on its head. Unfortunately, Lucas takes a decidedly reductive route, turning the Abrahamic religions into more than two hours of tired platitudes for his thinly drawn characters to mouth.
Doubling down on the faux profundity with a loopy, and needlessly complicated, framing structure, Lucas presents the majority of the play’s action as a flashback of the last few calamitous months. As episodically retold by Ash and his writing partner Astrid (Marianna Bassham) for their pieced-together script, the immiseration begins on Thanksgiving Day with a trip to grandma’s house, where Ash and his wife Pleasant (Lisa Emery), a loud, obnoxious atheist (her name is ironic, get it?), are set to celebrate the holiday with their proudly deaf son Knox (Russell Harvard) and his not-so-proudly-deaf boyfriend Farhad (Tad Cooley). Also along for the bumpy night are grandma’s friend Mariama (Gameela Wright), and Astrid herself, who Pleasant perceptively believes has a thing for her husband–and vice versa.
In addition to Ash, every other member of this sad lot can also stake a claim to being a Job-like figure: grandma Carla (Lois Smith), who’s not long for this world; Pleasant, who’s not long for her marriage; Astrid, who’s reward for waiting out that marriage might be a front-row seat to Ash’s return to alcoholism; and Mariama, whose emotional hardships greatly eclipse the number of lines she has in the play. Oh, and a couple of these people were victims of a Ponzi scheme by you-know-who, because why not?
But it’s Knox, a recovering substance abuser like his dad, who ends up being tormented to a biblically absurd degree. For whatever reason, the Lord seems thoroughly indifferent to Knox’s hard-won sobriety and the peace he has found as a member of the deaf community. So, with nary a warning whisper from on high, Knox falls madly in love with the unstable Farhad, who not only is actively taking drugs but also is disdainful of sign language.
Farhad’s other great addictions are video games and bleak one-liners, which is about as much character development as Lucas accords him. Sure, he’s also a secular Muslim, but, like Carla and Ash’s Judaism or the fact that Mariama is a Jehovah’s Witness, all these identities represent to Lucas is an opportunity to engage in some inch-deep religious philosophizing.
As we witness Knox’s fateful slide into possible oblivion, he is portrayed by two actors, Harvard and Harold Foxx, the latter of whom is a member of the play’s “shadow cast.” Each of the featured actors is, in fact, shadowed by an ASL-speaking performer who is simultaneously portraying the same character: Ash (Seth Gore), Astrid (Beth Applebaum), Pleasant (Amelia Hensley), Carla (Christina Marie), Farhad (Anthony Natale), and Mariama (Alexandria Wailes). Bringing order to the potential onstage chaos, the shadow cast is positioned on a narrow upper level that wraps around Arnulfo Maldonado’s fantastically utilitarian set.
While I Was Most Alive with You largely fails to live up to its outsized ambitions, or great title, watching director Tyne Rafaeli beautifully blend the two casts together in this bilingual production is genuinely affecting. No matter what language they’re speaking, the paired actors all seem meaningfully connected in their shared effort to depict a character. Working in tandem with Sabrina Dennison, the director of artistic sign language, Rafaeli also makes certain that there is a balance to the performances, with neither paired actor ever really being in the other one’s shadow.
In another example of narrative accessibility, the production’s sound design, evocatively rendered by Jane Shaw, is also a visual element, with stage directions–like noisy traffic–appearing on supertitles around the set. Along with Annie Wiegand’s retina-popping lighting flourishes, the play’s technical elements help to clarify Lucas’s transitions from the present to the past and back again.
Though, in truth, confusion would have been preferable to actually understanding Lucas’s hackneyed ending, where everything we’ve seen is called into question. Like that hapless prophet from the Hebrew Bible, you can’t help but feel that you’ve been jerked around for no good reason.
I Was Most Alive with You (through October 14, 2018)
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.phnyc.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission