Off Broadway Reviews
Lights Rise On Grace
As Far As We Know
If there's any heartbreak that compares with that of losing a child, it might well be not knowing whether your child is alive or dead. Erring on the side of hope, and trusting their own training, the U.S. armed forces assume a soldier is alive and shooting until it can be proven otherwise. As the touching but unsatisfying play As Far As We Know demonstrates, these two states of mind aren't always compatible.
Jake Larkin, a young Army Reservist, has vanished while serving in the Middle East, leaving his family and most of the military questioning his ultimate fate. Tantalizing clues abound - he shows up alive in a video statement he's forced to make by his captors; a series of photographs ostensibly depicting his demise contain too many vagaries to accept at face value - but for Jake's father, mother, and twin sister Nicole, not knowing for sure indefinitely postpones the grief or jubilation that could give them closure over such a sad and scary event.
While As Far As We Know, which was conceived by Laurie Sales and created by The Torture Project Ensemble in collaboration with playwright Christina Gorman, sticks close to its mysteries and their directly devastating impact, it's an involving meditation on the debilitating effects of uncertainty. But the play's tarnished depictions of various military brass keep it from maintaining the precise balance between two at-odds groups that's necessary for maintaining emotional tautness throughout.
Michael Batelli plays the highest ranker, Lt. Col. William Ainsley, with the buffoonish mien of Burgess Meredith playing the Penguin on the 1960s Batman TV series. Lea McKenna-Garcia depicts Sgt. Stephanie Dearborne, who provides a crucial link between Jake and the increasingly enlistment-interested Nicole, as an unsympathetic hardass who has let her senses of femininity and propriety be subsumed by her emasculating job. As Capt. Patricia Evans, the Casualty Assistance Officer assigned to the Larkins, Sara Kathryn Bakker is stiffly disconnected, as though she wants to comment without commenting on her character's role as the on-call solace provider forbidden from providing the solace the Larkins most need.
Alex Cherington never convinces as Jake's taskmaster, Vietnam-vet father, and Kelly Van Zile's Nicole reads more as a zealous troublemaker than a sister needing to learn the truth. But Jeff Wills is a staunch success as Jake, capturing both his resoluteness and fear as events spiral more and more out of control, and Cordis Heard anchors the play's heart as Jake's smilingly distraught mother, Connie. Their performances and their characters don't collide often, which doesn't help As Far As We Know align along its most important dramatic axis. But when they do, the play's true point about the human cost of war is made far more succinctly and powerfully than the overstatement the play otherwise too often provides.
As Far As We Know
People who need people are hardly lucky in ...Double Vision, Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich's look at modern relationships and why, most of the time, they just don't work. The reason, or so we're led to assume, is that the present vogue for intrusive self-examination has made us so intimately aware of ourselves that we're now completely incapable of relating to others. It's a bleak message, yes, but one that's right at home amid the torrid tangles that fill this arid evening.
The most visible subject of all this philosophizing is Ben (Christopher McCann), a 50-year-old recovering drug addict who abandoned his wife and two children 10-15 years ago (he can't remember exactly) and who's now taken up with the 21-year-old French girl named Michelle (Sarah Silk) who's convinced him of the joys life can hold. Of course, that only lasts until he takes up with Celia (Linda Jones), the middle-aged, passionate, car-obsessed nurse who lives next door. Ben, it turns out, just wants love, and doesn't care where he gets it - or what happens to it after he's got it.
Much the same is also true of Ben's roommates. Mark (Quinn Mattfeld) is a youthful lothario who wants only to bed as many married women as possible; Dave (Shane Jacobsen) is an accident-prone motorist stuck in a relationship with the preternaturally indecisive Mary (Rebecca Henderson), who's insisting on a level of commitment from Dave that he can't provide.
Director Ari Laura Kreith does what she can to keep things moving, but she can't overcome the play's inherent leadenness, or its reliance on the audience's not noticing the only real problem facing most of these people is their refusal to act their ages. That's just not that interesting a dilemma split five ways, even for 80 breezy minutes; it's usually not, unless the subject is Peter Pan, and he flies and fights pirates at the same time.
The performances are accordingly immature, appropriate given the material but still resembling only half-fashioned people. Blumenthal-Ehrlich's overwrought dialogue doesn't let most of them sound like real people, either; Jacobsen, whether rolling around on a couch or baring it all in a lengthy nude scene of questionable importance, is the worst off, and generally sounds like an animatronic psych textbook.
Silk, though, comes off quite well, expanding to fill both her character's alluring physical and intellectual boundaries. The scene in which Michelle tells off a disgustingly duplicitous Ben is the only one that has any heat. This is because Michelle, in taking charge, finally decides to grow up. ...Double Vision would be more successful if you could focus on anything other than wishing everyone else would follow her lead.
Lights Rise On Grace
Race, sex, and love (in approximately that order) form the foundation of Lights Rise On Grace, which would probably provoke more if it strove to provoke less.
Chad Beckim's promising but overwritten play focuses on an angry triangle between three young Americans trying to survive in a world doing everything to keep them down: Grace (Ali Ahn), of Chinese descent; the black Lawrence, aka Large (Jaime Lincoln Smith); and the white Riece (Alexander Alioto). After Grace sacrifices her innocence to someone who doesn't deserve it, she succumbs to the more honest charms of the well-meaning Large, who is soon carted off to jail for six years, and who hooks up (in more ways than one) with the protective Riece. When Large and Riece rejoin society under Grace's roof, the trio learns the hard way that they won't all fit easily into one family photo.
Ahn, Smith, and Alioto are sublimely unaffected throughout, giving uncompromising portrayals of uncompromising people that never unduly flatter, yet always find the human beauty lost in their most shadowy recesses. This accomplishment is even more impressive given Beckim's script, which has given them just sketches to work from, rough-draft versions of concepts that the actors polish to gleaming brightness. Beckim's hackneyed plotting contains no fresh ideas, but treats topics from sexual and cultural mismatches to disapproving families and abandonment with the brutishly brazen taboo-toppling defiance of a 1950s kitchen-sink drama, the wrong feeling for a play that wants to be raw. That Beckim also never passes up an opportunity to be poetic, even if it means bestowing on his characters clunky turns of phrase, also doesn't help Lights Rise On Grace find rhythms to call its own.
But Robert O'Hara's direction helps Ahn, Alioto, and Smith ensure the language of the heart nonetheless resounds. The cast's abilities to mine such precarious feelings without turning out a single untruthful moment is a real testament to the inspiring qualities of Beckim's work on its most basic level. You can't help but feel, though, that it's the actors doing most of the sanding on Beckim's ragged words and events. More clarity on his part could well aid Lights Rise On Grace, but given what we currently hear, this starkly seductive production is probably best off with no additional amplification.
Lights Rise On Grace