Off-Broadway Review: “I Was Most Alive with You”

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David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic
  • Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member

Present, past, and several possible futures collide with the biblical story of Job in Craig Lucas’s “I Was Most Alive with You” currently playing at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage. And within each time frame and tale exist a multitude of layers of complexity and contingency about the human condition, particularly its vulnerability and resilience in the face of elucidated and unexplained suffering. As in all attempts to parse why bad things happen to good people, there are no “answers”in the play – perhaps only richer and more enduring questions raised by the First Testament mythos of Job “one blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”

Job’s alter ego in “I Was Most Alive with You” is Knox (a vulnerable and self-deprecating Russell Harvard) the thirty-something adopted Deaf son of Ash (a deeply flawed yet sensitive Michael Gaston) and Pleasant (a damaged but highly resilient Lisa Emery). At the beginning of the play and in real time, Knox is at home alone for the first time since his car accident that left him missing a hand and unable to sign. Ash, having left Knox at home, arrives at his workroom to continue work on a teleplay with his partner Astrid (an energetic and omnipotent Marianna Bassham). After reviewing seven basic ideas sketched out at Ash’s place earlier, they decide on a narrative dealing with the Thanksgiving dinner that precipitated Knox’s leaving with his boyfriend Farhad (a conflicted and distressed Tad Cooley) and getting into the accident. This narrative, according to Astrid, will be a“two-pronged narrative, what one didand what one mighthave done, should’ve.”

As Astrid and Ash begin to explore their idea, the events of that Thanksgiving, all that led up to it, and the events that followed the accident begin to exist in flashback in precise counterpoint to the action in the present. This challenging convention includes a shadow cast that not only signs the dialogue but also “acts out”what is being “said.” All members of the shadow cast work on a level above the main playing area. This allows the hearing and the d/Deaf to explore the action in a variety of ways – including the occasional use of projections of dialogue. Director Tyne Rafaeli’s staging is brilliant. She moves the cast into and out of the present and past with clarity and a seamless majesty. Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design, Annie Wiegand’s lighting design,and Jane Shaw’s sound design further enhance the fluidness of the transitions from scene to scene.

It is in both the present and the past that the audience experiences the depth of despair in Knox’s life – the same depth of despair that eventually led Job to curses the day he was born.His addiction, loss of love, loss of family, and loss of limb catapult Knox and his family into a chaotic examination of relationship, faith, and future. Scenes ofworking on the teleplay collapse into the concomitant scenes from the past with the logos, ethos, and pathos needed to make both dimensions believable and cathartic. Knox learns that his grandmother Carla (an animated and thoughtful Lois Smith) is dying, that his mother summons the courage to leave his father who is in love with Astrid, and that Carla’s Jehovah’s Witnesses friend Mariama (a caring and distraught Gameela Wright) is more than someone to help with the ASL signing at Thanksgiving – she has been the one assisting Carla cope with her illness.

“I Was Most Alive with You” explores the complex ways we communicate with or without speaking and hearing. Whether our language is English or ASL, how we insinuate, describe, perceive, interpret, parse, and understand the world around us is rehearsed with authenticity and believability. The play also explores how humankind deals with tragedy and deep despair. In the final scene – back in the present – Astrid and Ash are finishing the teleplay with Knox making a decision that threatens to explode life as his family knows it.Has Knoxdecided to end his life? Will Farhad intervene? How will the real and the fictional end? Astrid asks an emotionally distraught Ash whether he can accept an ending that includes rescuing Knox or whether he can live with “whatever happens.” Perhaps that is the only question available to the bereft, the wounded, the distraught, the suffering. And if it is, can we accept that choice?

I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU

The cast of “I Was Most Alive with You” features Marianna Bassham, Tad Cooley, Lisa Emery, Michael Gaston, Russell Harvard, Lois Smith, and Gameela Wright. The shadow cast includes Beth Applebaum, Harold Foxx, Seth Gore, Amelia Hensley, Christina Marie, Anthony Natale, and Alexandria Wailes.

The creative team includes Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic design), David C. Woolard (costume design), Annie Wiegand (lighting design), Jane Shaw (sound design), Alex Koch (projection design), Daniel Kluger (original music), and Brett Anders(Production Stage Manager)

“I Was Most Alive with You”runs at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street) through Sunday October 14th on the following performance schedule: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 7:30p.m. Matinee performances take place Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30p.m. Tickets start at $59.00 and are available at https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/. Running tine is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Photo: Russell Harvard (Knox) and Tad Cooley (Farhad) in “I Was Most Alive with You” at Playwrights Horizons. Credit: Joan Marcus.

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 The company of Oklahoma! Photo by AdamsVisCom

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