Two grander acts of self-devouring you won’t currently find on New York’s stages than those in Alan Ball’s new play All That I Will Ever Be, at New York Theatre Workshop. The first is by its lead character, an enigmatic, racially indeterminate, mid-30s man named Omar, who ascends from a life of prostitution to one of epic romance and then unwittingly does everything he can to plummet right back again. The second occurs when this otherwise absorbing play collapses in on itself when it fails to provide the searing, cathartic climax it promises.
One thing at a time. First and thankfully foremost is the 75% of the play that sparks and sizzles. Ball, who won a 1999 Academy Award for his screenplay to American Beauty and who conceived and created HBO’s acclaimed TV series Six Feet Under, is no stranger to delving into the shadowy, sometimes forbidden corners of human love where the deepest passions live and where the greatest pain is felt. So it’s no surprise that that’s exactly where the love affair between Omar (Peter Macdissi) and Dwight (Austin Lysy) spends most of its time festering.
They meet when the wealthy, white Dwight hires the Iranian Omar for only one evening, but quickly becomes enamored of the pain in his past: Omar was away at school in the U.S. when the shah fell, leading his father to murder his family and finally himself. As Dwight’s mother committed suicide, apparently because of Dwight’s father’s abuse, it seems as if they have an unusual amount of common ground, suggesting serious long-term potential.
But can anyone really trust a body - or soul - for hire? Omar’s capacity for connection does not extend only to Dwight. Whether selling telephones in his day job at an electronics store; juggling relationships with both Dwight and a young sophisticate named Cynthia (Kandiss Edmundson) with dreams of running her own movie studio; or bonding with a 60-year-old man (David Margulies) who experienced the gay sexual revolution firsthand (with men from all over the world), one thing is clear: Omar can be anything for anyone, and once learned, such lessons are not easily forgotten.
Ball and his astute director Jo Bonney track the immolation sparked by Omar’s tangled fuse of lies with all the ferocity of a potboiler-paperback author. (The warm, wood-paneled elegance of Neil Patel’s set even suggests a stylish John Grisham sensibility.) Yet there are strikingly few dishonest moments, and almost no scenes that don’t support or expand our understanding of Dwight and Omar’s relationship. Even ostensible throwaway scenes focusing on Dwight’s supportive-but-cautious father or Cynthia’s promiscuous boss (both played with smarmy relish by Victor Slezak) or the presence of negligible ensemble characters (most played by the chameleonic Patch Darragh) flesh out a world in which what we expect, what we recognize, and what we actually get are seldom the same thing.
The play’s tendency toward this is never better demonstrated than in Margulies’s sole scene, a compact, second-act tour de force about sexual and emotional liberation that Margulies, Macdissi, and Bonney build into the play’s thematic centerpiece. Margulies’s reminiscences about choices made and truths ignored and abandoned coolly encapsulate Ball’s perspectives on honesty and deception that so relentlessly drive the play. Margulies’s sweet-natured, avuncular performance is a major key to its success, as is its culmination in perhaps the most devastating line you’ll hear all season.
But what sets up a category-five hurricane of emotional and spiritual rebellion soon resolves into an overloud bitch fest and token violence that play into all the hand-wringing clichés the play’s previous scenes so roundly flaunted. It’s as if Ball, like Omar, were unable to untwist the various stories into a single cord to yank us through to the play’s coruscating conclusion, and instead injected two stock fight scenes to pick up the slack. Most compelling plays take at least a full scene to deflate; All That I Will Ever Be loses all its air in a matter of seconds.
Perhaps a more compelling Omar could better hold things together - the mannered Macdissi never completely convinces as the street-tough, barely hinged Omar, and his morphing into a shockingly inappropriate “angry Arab” stereotype in the final scenes ruins what goodwill he’s established. Lysy finds more layers in the surface-dwelling Dwight, though the distinctions he draws between “sexy,” “angry,” and “indifferent” are not always immediately obvious.
It might be Ball’s point that they’re not always so clear in life, either - just as we can’t really know everything there is to know about another person, parts of ourselves can be just as elusive. Ball displays no end of talent for inspiring these kinds of questions about our psychological makeups, and while he sticks with that, All That I Will Ever Be speaks loudly - if not always positively - to the outsider in all of us. When he doesn’t, no amount of effort he exerts is enough to draw us in.
All That I Will Ever Be
Photo: Austin Lysy and Peter Macdissi. Photo by Joan Marcus.