It’s easy to admire the ambition of I Was Most Alive with You, which opened Monday at Playwrights Horizons. But despite some fine moments and performances, it’s difficult to recommend this latest play by Craig Lucas.
In earlier works like Prelude to a Kiss and The Dying Gaul, Lucas deftly depicted the knottiness of relationships. The new work, revolving around a troubled family, is cluttered with themes and lacks clarity. It is at once too much and too little.
Too bad, since Lucas began with a venturous and lofty goal: to create a play with two casts of hearing actors and non-hearing actors, who simultaneously speak lines and communicate them with American Sign Language. There are also supertitles.
Watching a pair of ensembles perform the same lines at the same time – on stage and a balcony above it – has its challenges. But what proves frustrating is the story, a variation on the Book of Job. When calamity rains, it pours. Faith crumbles.
So it goes for Knox (Russell Harvard, an actor known for Tribes and There Will Be Blood who is deaf and whose work also inspired Lucas). Deaf, gay and in recovery, Knox is an ASL teacher who’s in a good place as well as a grateful one as the story begins. To hammer that home, it’s Thanksgiving.
But Knox’s state of mind – and faith – erodes rapidly as he collides with others with their own issues. Chief among them is his out-of-control boyfriend Farhad (Tad Cooley), whose attitudes about deafness and other issues are 180 degrees away from Knox’s.
And there’s Pleasant (Lisa Emery), Knox’s boozy, rudderless mother; Ash (Michael Gaston), his helicopter father; Astrid (Marianna Bassham), Ash’s writing partner on a show that recalls Days of Our Lives; and Carla (Lois Smith), Knox’s ailing grandmother who produces the TV show. Carla’s caretaker Mariama (Gameela Wright), who has her own family plight, rounds out the characters.
There’s more than enough heartache to go around, and it’s all in duplicate with the “shadow” cast, as it’s called in the Playbill. That includes Beth Applebaum, Kalen Feeney, Harold Foxx, Seth Gore, Amelia Hensley, Anthony Natale and Alexandria Wailes.
Over two hours, the woe flows: booze, pills, a life-changing car wreck, a Ponzi scheme, cancer, bigotry and, for good measure, repercussions of the death penalty. Much of the action unfolds like a melodrama within the play, adding its own layer of complexity.
It’s a lot to keep straight. Under the direction of Tyne Rafaeli, the production is efficiently designed, but acting is a mixed bag that ranges from phony and frantic to real-feel convincing. Bright spots include Smith’s easygoing, indomitable grace and Harvard’s aching eloquence.
If there’s a takeaway to I Was Most Alive with You, a title that remains a puzzle, it’s that there’s more than one Job. Life, for all, is a struggle. Plays about that subject don’t have to be one.