Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

The Best We Could

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 1, 2023

Frank Wood and Aya Cash
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
There's more than a whiff of Our Town in The Best We Could, Emily Feldman's "family tragedy" now on Manhattan Theatre Club's mainstage. The Wilder influence begins with Lael Jellinek's scenic design, so basic it can barely be called a set: stacked flats, folding chairs, stools, a table, and, for some reason, a dart board on the rear wall. The Our Town-ness continues with Maps (Maureen Sebastian), as she's called, who functions much as Wilder's Stage Manager does and steps in to play (quite diligently) several minor roles. And it's there in Feldman's sharp observation of family dynamics, and how small events and deceptions can have large impacts. The Best We Could isn't likely to join the Wilder as basic theater literature, but on its own terms it's an affecting little drama with a great central role, fortunately played here by a pretty great actor.

"All of the places and props in the play can live in the imagination," says the script, and indeed, outside of the cast of five there's not much to look at. The action begins with Maps making some Stage Manager-like scene-setting pronouncements. The mood is light; the "family tragedy" happens very gradually–one article at a time, like a striptease–and much of what precedes it may come off more as a family comedy. Maps introduces the characters: Ella (Aya Cash), the aimless daughter of Peg (Constance Shulman), a tart-tongued retired event planner, and Lou, an aging but still-active and ambitious microbiologist. Marc (Brian D. Coats) is Lou's oldest friend, going back to college, and he knows something about Lou that the family doesn't.

Lou, praise be, is played by Frank Wood. Such an honorable actor, one I've admired since Sideman in the 1990s and here afforded perhaps his most challenging role. Lou is gregarious, outwardly self-confident, the sort who'll initiate a conversation with a stranger on the street, but we sense a churning insecurity underneath. At one point, thanks to Feldman's inclination toward repetition, Lou has to say "I think I'll take the dog for a walk" eight or nine times. And such is Wood's skill, he gives it eight or nine different readings, betraying Lou's sinking confidence and growing desperation.

That's a long way away, though. First, Ella, who's frustratedly breaking up with her girlfriend, has to endure a troubling phone conversation with Peg, whose default line delivery, as voiced by Shulman, is a screech. "Maybe you should sit down," Peg keeps telling her. The news isn't that terrible, but it triggers the action, with Peg persuading Ella to drive her dad cross-country. The road trip is most of the play, and it homes in on how directionless Ella is–she's failed at several careers and authored a book nobody will publish–and Lou wishes to inspire in Ella the purposefulness she so markedly lacks, to be a grandfather, and to extend his career. There's a good job opening that Marc has some influence over; will he come through?

Feldman's chronology can get confusing; I wasn't always sure what year we were in, what with all the flashbacks and flash-forwards. And Maps's force-feeding of the narrative can be intrusive: "Rediscover each other and the country that you live in," for instance, she needlessly exhorts Lou and Ella as they begin their road trip. But it's a character-revealing journey, for both. "It's pretty simple," Lou keeps saying to her, prefacing not-that-simple discussions of mortgages, downsizing, investing, job hunting. He sees himself as a capable, caring dad. And he is, but he has swept under the rug a couple of earlier-life events that may be dangerous to ignore.

Ella is doing some deceiving of her own, initiated by Peg as a ruse to get father and daughter in the car together. Lou's discovery of it will be one of several things that crush him, and Wood's just the actor to convey the emotional transitions of a man we thought we knew well and didn't. I found Shulman's Peg grating, but that's probably the character more than the actor, and Cash nimbly traverses Ella's many moods. As Marc, Coats has to spend most of the time in the background; Maps even instructs him to stay there. I wish he had more to do.

Besides Maps, Sebastian is a doting dog owner, a clueless pedestrian Lou unsuccessfully tries to ingratiate, and, quite shatteringly, a former co-worker of Lou's who isn't happy to see him again. All the characters inhabit a small world, one that doesn't seem overcrowded with other people or much affected by external events. But that allows Feldman to zero in on awkward aspects of long friendships, the wariness that can creep into long marriages, and the tough world left to younger people by their forebears.

Daniel Aukin directs astutely, and special mention must be made of Kate Marvin's sound design: In a play with a lot of talk about dogs, she simulates both the sound of a chain leash making its way across the stage and a squeeze toy that the mutt picks up. They're not onstage, and yet, thanks to her, they are. It's indicative of a production that gets the details right, and breaks our hearts a little as it does.

The Best We Could (a family tragedy)
Through March 26, 2023
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: