Hands down Emily Feldman’s The Best We Could (a family tragedy), at the Manhattan Theatre Club, wins the most ironic title of the year. Not one character does the best he or she could in this heart-twisting five-actor drama.
The play details the long, slow descent of a family, cushioned only by an occasional jest and buoyed by the intensely moving acting by the ensemble with Frank Wood standing out in a superb demonstration of artistry.
Middle-aged Lou (Wood) and his wife Peg (Constance Shulman, giving a shrill, unappealing character depth, humor and a rich emotional life) live in New Jersey. Lou is a recently unemployed cancer researcher who despairs of getting another job in his field. Added to this, his beloved dog, Brandy, has suddenly died of a rare disease.
Their sullen, thirty-something daughter, Ella (Aya Cash, turning a rather gloomy woman into one with a subtle emotional life) lives in California. Ella is an underemployed yoga instructor who hasn’t fulfilled the promise of her excellent, Phi Beta Kappa-winning education.
At the opening of the play Peg calls Ella to inform her that Brandy has died and that she wants her to keep Lou company on a cross-country ride to pick up a new puppy. Peg’s ulterior motive is to have the father and daughter open up to each other which they do with tragic results.
This-long journey is the central conceit of The Best. Accepting this artificial device—and there are many reasons not to—allows the play to reveal its secrets. (The big question as the two progress from one U.S. landmark to the other is that the doggie pickup site is pretty close to Lou and Peg’s home, so why the necessity of a laborious drive?)
During a stop in Denver Lou has a reunion with an old schoolmate, Marc (Brian D. Coats, who brilliantly hides behind a dignified façade, all the while hiding secrets) who is also working in the research field. Lou begs Marc to recommend him for a position in his office, a request that leads directly to the shocking revelations to follow.
The fifth character—or should it be characters?—is Maureen Sebastian who plays a narrator/commentator as well as several figures who are pivotal in the quietly shocking revelations that pull all the threads of the plot together.
Sebastian deliciously plays Marc’s hilariously pretentious wife and Adele, a beleaguered office colleague of Lou’s, two women with distinct personalities whom she brings to life with incredible ease—two women who have a direct effect on the dark course of the play.
The seemingly easygoing Lou is the author of his own destruction. Peg and Ella are left at the end of the play in a stupor of despair. Feldman builds the play upon a network of many cross conversations, flashbacks, repetitions that gradually reveal each character’s darkest secrets. What is mild-mannered Lou hiding? Why is Ella’s soul so dark? How long can the waspish Peg support her husband and daughter?
All this plays out on Lael Jellinek’s odd set: a big black space open to the edges of the stage as well as the back wall; several folding chairs; an unused dartboard; and a very large rug taking up much of the floor space. This bleak scenery is molded by the imagination of the actors under Daniel Aukin’s astute direction into the interior of the automobile, the edge of the Grand Canyon, Lou and Peg’s middle class home, and Marc’s posh house.
Matt Frey’s lighting is instrumental too in fleshing out the physical and emotional life of Feldman’s characters, dressed in Anita Yavich’s casual, gray clothes.
The Best We Could really is a modern family tragedy; its themes resonate in many ways.
The Best We Could (a family tragedy) (through March 26, 2023)
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission