Monday, December 5, 2016

A Life: Tumbling into Obscurity

Brad Heberlee and David Hyde Pierce in the Playwrights Horizons production of A Life. (Photo: by Joan Marcus)

I would never willingly miss seeing David Hyde Pierce, so I hastened to the Playwrights Horizons production of A Life, a new play by Adam Bock, directed by Anne Kauffman at City Center. And for the first forty minutes (half of the play’s brief running time) it’s a worthwhile excursion for the actor’s fans. Pierce plays Nate Martin, a gay New Yorker – transplanted years ago from his native Ohio – who has just parted company with his latest boyfriend; it’s not the first time they’ve broken up so whether or not this split is permanent is up in the air. The play begins with a twenty-five-minute monologue, which Pierce delivers with witty understatement, in which Nate mostly discusses his checkered romantic history: short-term relationships that ended because of dissatisfaction – sometimes trivial-sounding – on his side. We expect that the play is going to focus on his attempts to get past his failure to sustain a relationship, or else his inability to pull out of his usual pattern, and since Pierce is a master at playing befuddled men struggling to get unstuck, and since he has the surest high-comic style currently on view, I was impatient to see how Nate’s story would unfold.

The shorter scene that follows introduces Brad Heberlee as his best friend, Curtis; the two men sit together on a bench in Central Park watching with appreciation as the hottest joggers race by. But then the play takes an unexpected turn: Nate walks into his apartment, has a heart attack, and dies. We watch for a very long few minutes while he lies slumped against his door and there’s nothing for us to listen to but the ambient sounds from beyond the apartment walls. After a blackout the play returns to the same stage picture, only this time we hear what seem to be Nate’s hushed, fragmented thoughts from the other side. After another blackout we’re back in the apartment once more, only this time a visibly freaked-out Curtis is being interrogated by two women from the morgue (Marinda Anderson and Nedra McClyde), who, in the next scene, have an excruciatingly banal exchange about their lives while they’re preparing the corpse. Then we attend Nate’s funeral (Lynne McCollough plays his sister from Ohio; Curtis tells a dumb joke) and, just before the end, we hear more semi-coherent thoughts from beyond the grave.

I’ve summarized the entire play because there’s so little to report, and because Bock gives us so sparse a text to work with that I’d hoped that laying it out might clarify what I found pretty much indecipherable. Alas, it hasn’t. A Life consists of half a play with a few rough notes for the second half – though, to be frank, they feel more like thoughts for some other play. Aside from Pierce’s reading of the monologue, and the revue-sketch rapport between him and Heberlee (who is quite good), the only element of the production I enjoyed was the way Laura Jellinek’s set transforms itself in the second half, literally from the ground up. This is the third scenic design I’ve seen this year – Wild (in London) and Plenty (at the Public) are the others – that relies on the inventive use of stage hydraulics. You might say that the second half of A Life is a set in search of a play.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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