Human Comedy

Three divergent takes on the nature of being alive

Gunnar Montana in “Kink Haüs,” at La MaMa through October 14.
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What is the role of faith in the modern secular world or for those who find no solace in an abstract, invisible god in times of trial and tragedy? And what does suffering mean, anyway? Can tribulation make us better people or is it simply meaningless physical, emotional, or existential torment? These dark questions are at the center of Craig Lucas’ powerful new play “I Was Most Alive With You,” now at Playwrights Horizons.

Inspired by the Bible’s Book of Job, the play is a kind of parable that tells the story of Knox, a deaf gay Jewish recovering addict and alcoholic who sees his life as perfect until tragedy strikes. He falls in love with Farhad, a deaf Muslim active addict, and their relationship is complicated, but love blinds Knox to the danger. After a contentious family Thanksgiving, tragedy befalls Knox, potentially destroying his life. Yet it is not only Knox who suffers. His adoptive father, Ash, also in recovery, is an aging TV writer whose show is failing. Ash’s wife, the ironically named Pleasant, struggles with her own bitterness, alcoholism, and jealousy of Ash’s writing partner, Astrid, whose love for Ash remains unrequited. Meanwhile Ash’s mother, Knox’s beloved grandmother, reveals her own dire medical and financial troubles.

It’s a great deal of plot to be sure, but Lucas makes it work because the scope and lyricism of the writing and performances make this a play about ideas, rather than incident. The spoken language is as powerful as the signing by the deaf actors, and there is a cast of “shadow characters” on a balcony above the main action who sign all the spoken parts.

We’re asked to consider on a very elemental level how we make it through life. Of all living things, only humans have the capacity to consider the meaning of existence. Is there a god, and if so what is it? Is it, as in Alcoholics Anonymous, defined by each individual? If not, then what? Seeking the answer is a constant source of both joy and pain, and to hide from the question is to be not fully alive. The irony in the play is that just when the characters seem to have it together, they are knocked off balance. The central drama here is the struggle to regain equilibrium… if possible.

Tyne Rafaeli’s, fluid, heartfelt direction is ideal for the play’s expansive emotional scope. The company is equally extraordinary. Michael Gaston as Ash, Lois Smith as his mother, and Marianna Bassham as Astrid inhabit their roles with compelling humanity. Lisa Emery as Pleasant and Tad Cooley as Farhad play the slow reveals of their sympathetic characters beautifully. As Knox, Russell Harvard is profoundly moving.

At one point in the play, Knox cries out, as Job did, to see God. Yet, as in the Bible, God, if he is there, does not respond directly. Knox, like the rest of the characters must learn that it is “thine own right hand that can save thee.” And acknowledge their powerlessness and limitations — and, in that way, find acceptance and, finally, hope.

Tackling issues of gender, male entitlement, women’s agency, power, and legitimacy couldn’t be more timely. But playwright Theresa Rebeck has cannily reached back to 1899 to show how timeless these issues are. Her subject is the then-world-famous actress Sarah Bernhardt’s quest to play Hamlet. At age 55, Bernhardt was highly successful, owned a thriving theater, and could play any role she chose. Yet she constantly comes up against men who want her to behave in a more feminine way that respects social constructs and flatter their self-images. Bernhardt refuses, and therein lies a play.

Rebeck’s “Bernhardt/ Hamlet,” getting a sumptuous production at Roundabout, is a swirling backstage comedy set in Bernhardt’s rehearsals for a production of “Hamlet.” To believe the men in her orbit — including playwright Edmond Rostand and actor Constant Coquelin — all of Paris is scandalized by a woman taking on Shakespeare’s most famous role. Scandal, though, is nothing new to Bernhardt. More importantly, she’s not playing a power game. She is instead seeking nothing less than the soul of Hamlet, which proves elusive. If he is male with all the attendant advantages, why does he take no action? Is a mature woman more temperamentally suited to the depressed Dane than a young man?

Frustrated, Bernhardt enlists Rostand, depicted as her lover, to rewrite the play. We never do see the rewrite, which proves a daunting challenge for Rostand, but we experience some of the original Shakespeare in the rehearsal process.

The scenes, particularly when Barnhardt as Hamlet interacts with his father’s ghost, find a nuanced interpretation, with the audience discovering colors in a woman playing a man not previously apparent. This is the subtle politics Rebeck is practicing, and it’s very effective.

Unfortunately, the play goes off the rails in the second act. We’ve suddenly shifted gears with the introduction of Bernhardt’s son, who comes in response to her letter saying she is broke. There’s also a visit from Rostand’s wife, who begs Bernhardt to release him from his “Hamlet” responsibilities, if not his amorous ones, so he can write “Cyrano de Bergerac.” The play devolves into a series of vignettes, and what started out as a serious dramatic journey becomes a more superficial character study, interesting but dramatically unsatisfying. Showing Bernhardt to be a mere mortal has merits, but clouds the drama.

Still, with Janet McTeer as Bernhardt, it’s impossible to go too far wrong. She is a luminous actress — one imagines as close to Bernhardt as possible in pure star power. She is alternately witty, self-involved, tormented, and angry. McTeer is ably supported by Dylan Baker giving a wonderfully full and varied performance as Coquelin and Jason Butler Harner as Rostand. Under the wonderfully calibrated direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel and on the gorgeous revolving sets by Beowulf Boritt, the show is a feast of theatricality. Much as one might wish for more, we can make do.

In his published materials, the performance artist Gunnar Montana says his work “refuses to be defined.” That makes it a little tough on a critic. That said, his piece “Kink Haüs,” at La MaMa for a few more performances, should not be missed. Exploring a full range of erotic encounters, including fetishism, S&M, and sexual role-playing, the piece is largely danced — and quite beautifully at that. The juxtaposition of elegant, classic forms — including ballet and modern dance, as well as non-traditional movement — perfectly executed by a gorgeous company, and the dark, erotic, and sometimes emotionally violent subject matter creates its own form that doesn’t require definition. Performance touching on the taboo and dangerous as a draw is not a novel idea, but when presented with such passion and electric artistry it is an original, immediate, and visceral experience. Don’t worry about what it is; just go.

I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU | Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Oct. 14: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 7:30 p.m. | $59-$99 at or 212-279-4200 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission

BERNHARDT/ HAMLET | American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.| Through Nov. 11: Tue.-Fri. at 7 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59-$252 at or 212-719-1300 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission

KINK HAÜS | La MaMa, 66 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Through Oct. 14: Thu.-Sun. at 8 p.m.; Fri. at 10 p.m. | $30; $25 for students & seniors at or 212-352-3101 | Fifty-five mins., no intermission

Updated 10:04 am, October 10, 2018
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