Book of Job inspires I Was Most Alive with You, a modern biblical parable

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Craig Lucas truly is a poet of human misery. At least, that’s the impression one might get after sitting through his wide-reaching, lumbering beast of a drama I Was Most Alive with You, now running through Oct. 14 at Playwrights Horizons theater.

This attempt at a Bible-sized portion of the human struggle suffers from weight of its own ambition.

What feels like several narrative frames attempting to fight for dominance as Lucas’ characters essentially begin to lose any and all control over their lives.

In a program note, Lucas mentions that the work was inspired after his own personal catastrophes and being told by a friend to read the Book of Job. What results here is a bit of a mess.

On Arnulfo Maldonado’s two-tiered set, a shadow cast of actors interpret the show in American Sign Language, while Astrid, played by Marianna Bassham, and Ash, embodied by Michael Gaston, attempt to figure out what they could’ve done right one fateful Thanksgiving night.

They are attempting to write a screenplay for their network using the night in question as an inspirational catalyst.

Astrid suggests using the Book of Job as a frame of reference, passages of which she occasionally recites.

There is also the attempt to keep track of what the ASL shadow cast does, which seems to be some cross between interpretation and rendering the inner thoughts of the characters on stage.

After a while, it grows to be a bit tiresome. While the attempt to create frameworks of the play to be completely accessible to deaf audiences is to be applauded, there is something dramaturgical that doesn’t quite meld.

It doesn’t help that director Tyne Rafaeli seems to be caught in such a limbo with staging this modern-day biblical parable, and director of artistic sign language Sabrina Dennison appears to have not been given enough reign to fully merge the two worlds together.

It creates something of a split connection that never quite finds itself reattached. It also doesn’t help that the characters Lucas has created are so miserable as to be beyond pitied, just witnessed in their revulsion.

True to form, the playwright who brought similar works of the human tendency toward destruction, of the self and otherwise, to the stage has created a world in which the capacity for humans to fall is almost cosmic.

While Lucas’ other works, such as the upper-class farce The Singing Forest and Hollywood love story The Dying Gaul, seem to at least have a sense of identity, I Was Most Alive with You doesn’t have as much confidence. It’s as if the work is fighting for its own survival.

The characters, as well, seem to be struggling to survive for their own existence on stage. The only exception here is the ever-talented Russell Harvard, who here is one of the many stand-ins for a modern Job.

Harvard plays Knox, Ash’s gay and deaf adopted son, who begins the drama with a beautiful prayer to God that allows the audience to understand the sheer goodness that inhabits his spirit.

So, when Knox suffers a tragedy that causes his slide back into addiction, it is difficult to watch, but most certainly believable to anyone who has been friends with a recovering addict. In this regard, Lucas holds no punches back, whether it is Knox’s relapse, the betrayal by his love Farhard, here a bit underplayed by Tad Cooley, or the slow decline of Knox’s mother Pleasant, brought to wretched life by Lisa Emery.

It can also make one feel bad for the shadow cast, who are incredibly talented yet have little to do other than interpret. In one case, Shadow Knox, represented by Harold Foxx, has little to do in the first act but only reaches his full ability when the story finally comes around to the second.

They never come down from their second tier, but are given the occasional interesting lighting treatment from designer Annie Wiegand. It would be a stretch to call it a waste, but their lack of presence is most definitely an oversight that Rafaeli should have handled better.

All in all, the work is lacking a level of dramaturgical nuance that would have turned it from ambitious to something truly great in terms of its size and scope. The work is clearly unafraid of being traumatizing in some ways, but it sacrifices care for punch-in-the-face theatrics that were really quite unnecessary.

A graphic on-stage suicide attempt, for example, could have been handled without the feeling of terror for terror’s sake. Lucas, Rafaeli and Dennison all clearly crafted this piece with care, just not with as gentle a hand as needed.