Deafness today brings with it cultural baggage, with controversies over vocalizing, lip reading, and ASL (American Sign Language). Addiction damages the addict and the addict’s family. Homosexuality, even with an accepting family, can be a scary thing to deal with. And loving a loose cannon can have terrible consequences. In I Was Most Alive with You, Craig Lucas’s brilliant, sometimes bewildering, occasionally maddening new play, that last factor causes a horrific, life-changing, completely preventable car crash.
All of that – not to mention suicidal tendencies – helps define just one character, Knox, in this kaleidoscope of a drama, now in its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons through October 14.
Prismatically directed by Tyne Rafaeli, the play is performed in spoken English by actors who sometimes converse in ASL as well. In parallel, it features a “shadow” cast of signing actors who convey the story to Deaf audience members from balconies above the live action.
As if that weren’t enough meta-theatricality, Knox’s father Ash (Michael Gaston) is a comedy writer. (Oy! Another script about a scriptwriter! groaned the critic in me with dread that turned out to have been needless).
As a framing device for the story, Ash and his writing partner Astrid (a sharply animated and very winning performance by Marianna Bassham) are endeavoring to script the recent events in the saga of Ash’s woebegone family. In so doing they draw an ongoing, explicit parallel to the biblical Book of Job.
But God and Satan’s hapless guinea pig in this tale is not the woebegone Knox. It’s his father, Ash.
Are you with me so far? It’s OK, just ride along. I Was Most Alive with You is dizzying, but impassioned and funny and well worth hanging on for.
That’s what “Nana” Carla has done – stuck around. She’s played by the indomitable Lois Smith, who has been specializing in dying matriarchs who control a family purse. But this time, unlike in the very recent Peace for Mary Frances, her character has fallen victim to a financial Ponzi scheme. Losing the savings Ash has earned through his once-successful TV show, Carla further fulfills the Job story.
As affecting as Gaston’s wailing Ash is Lisa Emery as his alienated wife. Even her name, Pleasant, sets her apart from the clan. For one thing, she’s a WASP in a Jewish family. (Though even that’s not so simple: We learn that Carla converted in her youth after finding that only her Jewish acquaintances embodied “Christian” values.)
Pleasant has also refused to learn ASL and accept the Deaf community, instead laboriously teaching Knox to vocalize – and, tellingly, “doing it all on my own.” But Knox is now a grown man writing his own troubles. Pleasant has also had to surrender (to Astrid) the role of companion to Ash, and relinquish (to Carla) that of financial partner. As Emery sinks deep into the character, Pleasant’s fading away from her family feels as sad, if less violently wrenching, as what happens to Knox. (TV viewers may recognize Emery as the hard-edged, trigger-happy drug baroness in Netflix’s Ozark, a character charged on a very different frequency.)
Most fundamentally, though, this is Knox’s show, and it’s a seething portrayal by Deaf actor Russell Harvard (There Will Be Blood), for whom Lucas wrote the play. Harvard pounces on the role with heated determination and splintery craft. Hopelessly hung up on the opioid-addicted Farhad (a focused, wiry turn by Tad Cooley), Knox finds his hard-won stability threatened on multiple counts. The epitome arrives when he confronts Ash about the truth of his very presence in the family.
Nothing is a balm for this Gilead. Not assurances from his family. Not Farhad’s tangled but true devotion. Not the cooling presence of Nana’s hired caregiver Mariama (an excellent Gameela Wright) with her Jehovah’s Witnesses literature.
Nonetheless the play leaves Knox’s fate open-ended. As Astrid suggests, humanity’s real distinguishing characteristic is storytelling. And the playwright reminds us at the end that this is (just) a story. Told subjectively, creatively, uncertainly, and conceptually and literally on multiple levels, it’s captivating for those very reasons.
Visit Playwrights Horizons online or call (212) 279-4200 for schedule and tickets.