Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

A Life

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 24, 2016

David Hyde Pierce
Photo by Joan Marcus

Overanalyzing life is easy, but living it is hard. This may be the closest thing there is to a moral that can be found in Adam Bock's new play A Life, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons in a gorgeous, genuinely shocking production by Anne Kauffman. It may also be the only substantive thing I can say about this endlessly inventive, deeply confusing evening that thrives, in a way almost none other I've seen has, on your not having a clue what's coming next. Paradoxically, and unfortunately for the talented Bock, this is at once the play's greatest asset and most debilitating liability.

A full 27 minutes of the 90-minute show is dedicated to proposing the central thesis that it's absolutely possible to think too much about how you live. It's delivered in the form of a monologue by Nate Marvin (David Hyde Pierce, at his most neurotic and controlled-scattered) in which he not only describes the breakup of a month ago that's plunged him into emotional stasis, but also guides you step by step through his astrological chart in an attempt to understand why he's ended up where he now is.

You will, on some level, learn everything you'd want to know (and more) about this single gay man living in New York City. But the point is that just knowing that Pluto is in Nate's first house, much like understanding his quest to better get in touch with his own soul (he's attending a Quaker meeting and a meditation class) or why he's been so passionate in pursuit of but so challenged in finding love, doesn't really explain much about the person beneath the struggles. In the final accounting, we are both more and less than the sum of our parts.

Nate has an interpretation of this, too, of course. "See these planets?", he says of his painstakingly researched chart. "Each of them stands in for a god of something, the god of war, the god of rules, the god of money, of thought, of music, the goddamn goddess of love, and... And each one of them is a jealous god, unhappy if he is ignored. So spend too much time with one of them, spend all your time dancing with Apollo or hide in the back of the bar talking politics with Mercury, be like me and let Venus, let the goddess of love trap you in her glittering net, and the other gods will come looking for you, and demand that you start paying attention to them instead." That quest for meaning, we soon see, is meaningless as well.

Even meaning itself is a dodgy concept given what happens next, which ushers in the part of A Life it's best I not talk about. Let's just say that Bock pulls back his camera to then view Nate's life, and its impact on those around him, on a canvas that's simultaneously much bigger and much smaller than any Nate himself considered. We see, through a succession of dreamlike scenes what he's meant to his close friend Curtis (Brad Heberlee), the sister in Milwaukee he hasn't spent much time with (Lynne McCollough), and two other women (played by Marinda Anderson and Nedra McClyde) with whom he comes in unexpectedly intimate contact. We similarly glimpse just what he hasn't meant to some of them, a viewpoint that tends to be more revealing still about the bigger picture to which Nate has unwittingly become a part.

Kauffman's orchestration of all this is truly arresting, not merely in her staging of one transformative event in Nate's life and another in Laura Jellinek's painstakingly realistic set (with Matt Frey's lights and Mikhail Fiksel's sound design essential elements of her success), but in giving precisely articulated visual voice to Bock's contention that, no matter what, life finds a way to go on. In particular, two back-to-back scenes, the first in which two outsiders visit Nate's apartment and the second in which he leaves to visit two other people, crackle with a synergy of staging and script that explores in a way I've never quite encountered before the kind of pedestrian conversations that probably actually take place in situations we'd expect to be rife with uncontrolled emotion.

It's perhaps emblematic of the problems with A Life that Hyde Pierce's performance eventually becomes immaterial to the proceedings. He sensitively depicts Nate, and all his contradictions of the heart and mind, letting us see how he's uniquely special and quintessentially ordinary. And his performance of some of the more daunting physical aspects of the role's requirements was, to my eye, flawless—not easy given some of what Nate must do.

But if there's no arguing with the theatrical execution from any quarter, it doesn't add up to much. For all the misdirection and filigree he deploys so expertly, Bock is simply taking a snapshot with a lengthy exposure, and that's not an adequate substitute for actual content. In his previous Off-Broadway work, Bock has demonstrated a fondness for and a facility with toying with metaphor as well as physical and intellectual space. This has resolved itself, variously, as the degradation of the senses and truth dripping out of a booze bottle (respectively A Small Fire and The Drunken City, both also at Playwrights Horizons), creeping totalitarianism (The Receptionist), and unconventional love (Swimming in the Shallows). But in each of these, a greater message eventually emerged.

That doesn't happen in A Life; it leaves you admiring the stagecraft and Hyde Pierce's abilities to fuse it into something sensible both during his marathon speech and in the considerably less word-choked scenes to follow, but you end up unearthing little knowledge or perspective you didn't have coming in. Bock deserves as much credit as can be given him for delivering one of the most structurally innovative plays I've ever seen. But your tolerance for what he does ultimately depends on how much time you think you can endure nothing happening in the traditional narrative sense. If your patience threshold is at or below 50 consecutive minutes, I'm sorry, but this just isn't the play for you.

A Life
Through November 27
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral