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.

Off-Broadway Review: “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur”

Off-Broadway Review: “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur”

Tennessee Williams’ 1979 play “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” connects deeply with all (individuals, governments, nation-states) suffering the malaise of loss or lack of identity and the quest for independence that sometimes results in broken hearts. Perhaps there is a mercy-seat for all who languish with wounded hearts.

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We could have had an exciting portrayal of these congressional hearings, as there is no doubt that these performers (Dracyn Blount, Alexander Chilton, Shayna Conde, Nick Daly, and Georgia Lee King) would have all excelled at telling that story; they were excellent. Instead, we get part history and mostly art, and frankly, this wasn’t advertised and not what I signed up for.   

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For many adults, dealing with an aging parent and ensuring that they are cared for can be a challenging issue. More specifically, the dilemma of moving a parent out of the place they’ve called home for many years, and into a living home or community for the elderly, can be a hard one for both sides of that relationship. It’s a topic that is delved into on a very human and intimate level in In the Bleak Midwinter, the new play from Emmy award-winning actor/writer/director Dorothy Lyman, which has been receiving constant praise during its run at Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios.

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Review: "Meshahnye" at Theater for the New City

Katherine Hebert

  • New York Contributing Critic

A new translation of a Russian classic has made a home off-Broadway and into the thoughts of any audience member lucky enough to snag a ticket before the end of its run. Presented by Double Decker productions, Meshahnye (sometimes translated as “The Philistines”) was the premiere play by socialist realism founder Maxim Gorky.  It follows a family who’s bond rapidly deteriorates as the characters wrestle with a shifting socio-economic climate all while the Russian Revolution and subsequent aftermath looms outside their window.

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A piece that primarily focuses on the generational divide between parent and child. Most of the conflict derives the weight that comes because of this generation gap. Gorky (only 33 upon the play’s publication) made the choice not to blame either party and instead present the flaws in both groups’ ideologies whilst keeping both elder and child in an empathetic light. This all too relatable conflict is aided by Jenny Sterlin’s new translation and direction which manages to breathe new life into a revered classic. While a strong and capable cast pulls off a marathon of a play (clocking in at two and a half hours) which on its own is an impressive feat. Though I should note that the strength of both the text and the cast is so great that  you barely notice the length.

Heading this unit is the family patriarch Bessemenov (portrayed by John Lenartz). Lenartz manages to garner sympathy from the audience by bringing humanity to what is on paper and in the hands of a less capable performer a crotchety curmudgeon. At his side is the phenomenal Isabella Knight portraying Akulina, the matriarch of the family clan. Knight brings a dignified desperation to her character’s feeble attempts at making peace between her husband and children. Her pleas for peace fall upon the deaf ears of her children, the perpetually miserable Tatiana (Annie Nelson) and the often angst-ridden Peter (Thomas Burns Scully). Despite the picture both Gorky’s dialogue and Jenny Sterlin’s translation paint of Tatiana’s mental state, Nelson finds her strongest moments in Tatiana’s silence rather than in her declarations of misery. While Scully’s take on Peter is earnest and endearing with more than a fair share of humor sprinkled in, making what could very easily be an unlikable character charming. Watching the familial chaos unfold is their tenant Teterev (Zenon Zeleniuch) Zeleniuch portrays Teterev with a near devilish glee often deriving pleasure from the family’s plight. But if Teterev is the devil on this family’s metaphorical shoulder than Perchikin the drunken bird-seller serves as their angel. Kenneth Cavett’s Perchikhin is jovial and brings levity to the often grim subject matter. His speeches about his birds as well as requests for connection from the children who once admired him are rapturous and tragic. As these requests are often brushed off or unheard. Another beacon of positivity in an otherwise miserable household is Perchikhin’s daughter Polya (Ninoshka De Leon Gill) who portrayed with a childlike naivete and plucky determination.

Overall Meshahnye is a riveting revelation and sure to strike a chord with anyone who has gone home winter break after spending a semester abroad. Playing at the Theatre for the New City until September 30th this is new interpretation of an all too relevant classic is not one to miss.

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