'A Life': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Brad Heberlee (left) and David Hyde Pierce in 'A Life'
David Hyde Pierce is mesmerizing in this deeply unsettling, surprising play.
11/27/2016

David Hyde Pierce plays a lonely man who seeks answers with astrology in this new drama by Adam Bock, directed by Anne Kaufman.

Nate, the central character in Adam Bock's new drama A Life, may be a sad sack who's unlucky in love, but he's very pleasant company indeed. And why wouldn't he be, since he's played by the wonderfully endearing David Hyde Pierce. The actor's 30-minute monologue at the start of the play makes sitting on a couch and quietly chatting utterly compelling.

In that long soliloquy, Nate tells us how lonely he has felt after his boyfriend broke up with him, and that he has been unable to maintain a successful romantic relationship all of his life. His fellow group therapy patients tell him he has a problem with intimacy. His cramped New York City apartment barely allows him room to move, and he's stuck in a dead-end job as a proofreader at an ad agency. But when he tries to add a new item to his voluminous to-do list, he has trouble finding an empty page.

Nate does have one hope, however, and that's astrology. He believes that studying the positions of the stars and planets can provide the answers he desperately seeks. Or maybe, he concedes, it can't. But he does know one thing for sure: "I can't live like this anymore."

That long prelude — which, despite its despairing tone, is often hilarious, thanks to Pierce's expert comic delivery — is followed by a short scene in which Nate sits in a park with his friend Curtis (Brad Heberlee) and makes small talk while ogling the men walking nearby. "Look at his arms!" Nate marvels more than once at a particularly well-built specimen. After that, Nate returns alone to his apartment, where he puts away his dry cleaning and … well, to reveal anything more would be to spoil the heartrending surprises of this deeply unsettling drama, which will linger long in your mind. Suffice it to say if you're single and living alone, you'll want to rethink your life choices after seeing it.

World-premiering at Playwrights Horizons, the drama is bound to deeply divide audiences. Some will find it profoundly moving, others gimmicky. But that's been true of many works by this adventurous, experimental playwright, including The Receptionist, The Thugs and Swimming in the Shallows.

Director Anne Kaufman (Marjorie Prime, Detroit) doesn't shy away from the play's daunting aspects. One scene plays out mostly in silence, for what seems like an eternity. In another, the context renders pleasant small talk into something horrific.

Even the production itself surprises, with scenic designer Laura Jellinek providing a coup de theatre that will have you gasping at its audacity.

In a role that's the polar opposite of his upcoming Broadway return, co-starring in a revival of Hello, Dolly! opposite Bette Midler, Pierce is compelling from first moment to last, whether he's chatting or in repose. The rest of the cast, which includes Marinda Anderson, Nedra McClyde and Lynne McCollough in multiple roles, offers solid support.

A Life is a little rough-hewn, both in the writing, which sometimes feels underdeveloped, and its technical aspects, such as the recorded voiceovers that are barely intelligible. But these are mere quibbles about a drama whose simple truths will leave you ineffably shattered.

Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Marinda Anderson, Brad Heberlee, Nedra McClyde, Lynne McCollough, David Hyde Pierce
Playwright: Adam Bock
Director: Anne Kaufman
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Sound designer: Mikhail Fiksel
Presented by Playwrights Horizons

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