'I Was Most Alive With You': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
From left: Russell Harvard, Tad Cooley and Lisa Emery in 'I Was Most Alive With You'
You'll identify with the characters' suffering all too vividly.

The world of Deaf culture is explored in this new drama from Craig Lucas, author of 'Prelude to a Kiss' and 'Reckless,' inspired by the Book of Job and starring Russell Harvard.

Playwrights might want to start thinking twice about using the Book of Job as inspiration. Not even a commercial powerhouse like Neil Simon managed to do this successfully, as evidenced by his short-lived, critically maligned 1974 play God's Favorite, one of his biggest flops. Craig Lucas' attempt to dramatize the biblical story proves similarly troublesome. In much the same way God threw every calamity he could muster at his hapless follower, the playwright deluges the audience with so much relentless misery that we come to feel as victimized as old Job. Although the drama receiving its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons has admirable qualities, I Was Most Alive With You is a trial to endure.

Lucas' other stated goal was to write a play for deaf actor Russell Harvard (Tribes on stage, There Will Be Blood and FX's Fargo on screen), who plays the central role of Knox, a deaf, gay recovering alcoholic/addict, romantically involved with Farhad (Tad Cooley), a not-so-recovering addict. The other characters figuring in the melodramatic proceedings are Knox's father Ash (Michael Gaston) and misleadingly named mother Pleasant (Lisa Emery); Astrid (Marianna Bassham), Ash's writing partner on a long-running TV show, with whom he's clearly in love; Carla (Lois Smith), Ash's elderly, wealthy mother who produces the show; and Mariama (Gameela Wright), her full-time nurse.

To make the play fully accessible to deaf audiences, each character also is played by a similarly dressed "Shadow" performer who simultaneously delivers the lines in American Sign Language on a catwalk above the stage. Projected supertitles translate some of the signed dialogue, as well as providing descriptions of the sound effects and musical underscoring.

A series of calamities befall the characters who, in a nod to another Old Testament story, cover a Noah's Ark-like diversity of religions — Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness and atheist. Barely a few minutes go by without someone suffering a relapse, financial ruin, severe depression, family abandonment, terminal illness, a suicide attempt and, most dramatically, a car accident that results in an all-too-symbolic amputation.

The play also delves into the schism between Deaf and deaf culture (the former refers to people who identify culturally as deaf, while the latter pertains to the condition itself) with such plot elements as Pleasant feeling estranged from her son because she doesn't know ASL. Oh, and did I mention that some of the narrative is depicted as a television show storyline concocted by Ash and Astrid?

It's an awful lot to pile into a single evening, and the playwright doesn't manage to finesse it into palatable form. Lucas seems to think he's earning creative karma points simply by tossing in every social issue and personal travail he can think of. But the writing is neither sufficiently poetic nor leavened by humor to deliver insights; instead, it just pounds the audience into submission.

It's a shame, because the production is elegantly staged by Tyne Rafaeli (Sabrina Dennison directed the ASL portion) and superbly acted by an ensemble of hearing and deaf actors. Harvard delivers a performance of such anguished intensity that at times he's almost difficult to watch. But all the actors are affecting, including Smith, a national treasure, and the signing performers who inevitably divide your attention between the upper and lower sections of the stage.

There's no doubting the sincerity behind I Was Most Alive With You. How could there be, considering how much Lucas hits you over the head with it? But this ungainly, overstuffed play has the opposite effect of its intention. Rather than making you think, it makes you numb. You'll find yourself leaving the theater not so much enlightened about the human condition as in need of a stiff drink.  

Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Beth Applebaum, Marianna Bassham, Tad Cooley, Lisa Emery, Kalen Feeney, Harold Foxx, Michael Gaston, Seth Gore, Russell Harvard, Amelia Hensley, Anthony Natale, Lois Smith, Alexandria Waites, Gameela Wright
Playwright: Craig Lucas
Director: Tyne Rafaeli
Director of Artistic Sign Language: Sabrina Dennison
Set designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Annie Wiegand
Music: Daniel Kluger
Sound designer: Jane Shaw
Projection designer: Alex Basco Koch
Presented by Playwrights Horizons