by Sergei Burbank · February 27, 2014
It is perhaps fitting that Craig Lucas’ Ode to Joy, now running at the Cherry Lane Theater, opens with a yelp of pain. Lucas’ work is unmistakably an affirmation -- of existence, of life, of love, of perseverance -- but it regards with a clear eye the fact that all of it comes with a price, and none of it is neat.
Unfolding over the course of 14 years, from 1999 to the present, Ode to Joy follows Adele (Kathryn Erbe), a notable painter struggling for financial security, as she revisits the three great romances of her life: with Mala (Roxanna Hope), a dynamic and successful executive whose loss of a will to live provides Adele with purpose; Bill (Arliss Howard), a brilliant but tortured cardiac surgeon whose wealth provides Adele with a means to more secure success; and alcohol, which provides Adele a mask for her self-loathing. The chronology of the play opens like a series of nesting dolls, with Adele telling us about her first meeting with Bill, during which she tells Bill about her past relationship with Mala. At the center of each whirlwind seduction is Adele’s fury, passion, and brilliance -- and both Bill and Mala prove worthy sparring partners.
Beyond Adele herself, there is no common thread to either romance: Bill and Adele’s mutual infatuation, which unfolds in pretty much real time on stage, is the entwining of kindred souls; Lucas’ writing deftly weaves together philosophical treatise, wit, and achingly accurate observation of human behavior into dense and compelling prose. Adele’s romance with Mala, on the other hand, is born out of battle: Mala appears in Adele’s studio as a potential buyer, only to find that she hates her work; Adele’s impassioned defense of it, and her pointed observations of Mala, result not in a brawl but a dinner invitation. Each relationship, which unfold in adjacent scenes, takes an opposite trajectory of the other -- the harshness of Mala’s shell begets a gentle and nurturing relationship between the two women, while Bill and Adele, starting from a place of synchronicity, descend into anger and mutual mistrust: they drive each other crazy, but cannot make a clean break. Mala, however, does -- and her prescient understanding of where Adele’s dependence on substances will lead only becomes manifest in Adele’s later years with Bill. Ending fourteen years after its earliest scene, the play provides a poignant denouement between the three, with a satisfying yet realistic capture of a kind of love, and our inability to completely quit those with whom we connect the strongest.
Lucas’ script shines with frequent brilliance and singular characters; Bill, an affirmed atheist, quotes Jesus incessantly, his skepticism existing side by side with his respect for the Nazarene’s philosophy. The dialogue crackles with the pleasure of intelligent people matching wits with each other. Roxanna Hope’s Mala is achingly beautiful; her pain in cutting loose a woman she loves dearly is persuasive and memorable. Arliss Howard tackles Lucas’ prose with alacrity and skill, transforming a cerebral character into one who possesses dynamism and menace.
As brilliant and cogent as the script is, there are a handful of puzzling ellipses; Bill presents an impassioned attack on the concept of addiction as a disease, yet we hear second-hand that he later becomes sober. It is an unaccountable about-face that makes little sense; Lucas’ talent for creating characters with agency conflicts with his own unquestioning subscription to AA’s philosophy. Bill is so well-written that his necessary journey and change is elided; but ultimately this is a quibble.
Andrew Boyce’s economical and clever set design deserves acclaim, and its interplay with Paul Whitaker’s light design provides the sublimity that live theater with resources is capable of creating.