Monday, November 7, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—Adam Bock’s “A Life” with David Hyde Pierce; A.R. Gurney’s “Two Class Acts”

A Life
Written by Adam Bock; directed by Anne Kaufman
Performances through December 4, 2016
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Two Class Acts: Ajax & Squash
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Stafford Arima
Performances through November 14, 2016
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street, New York, NY

David Hyde Pierce in A Life (photo: Joan Marcus)

I don’t know what suggested Adam Bock’s best play, 2011’s A Small Fire, a brutally incisive tragic drama laced with humor about a middle-aged working woman, wife and mother who loses her senses one by one. His new play, A Life—partly inspired by the deaths of his parents in short order a few years ago—is a less successful mish-mash that combines touching moments with a lesser grasp on what seems far more personal material.

A Life introduces Nate Martin, a middle-aged gay man in New York City going through his latest breakup. For more than 20 minutes, Martin regales the audience with a humorous monologue about his own failed relationships, complete with explanations of how astrology has become a big part of his life. After this, Bock brings in Nate’s best friend Curtis, then—after a tragedy strikes Nate—a few civil servants, either callous or sympathetic, and his sister Lois. The play ends with a shorter Nate monologue where he explains how he’s made peace with the twists and turns of his life.

Despite its title and scant 75-minute running time, A Life is a cut-and-paste job of things its author wanted to put into a play, and it’s neither as imaginative or insightful as it wants to be. Bock himself said that he wanted to write a long monologue for a middle-aged gay man like himself, and figured that, since he likes astrology, that would be the topic—so into the play it goes. Also, a sudden and shocking plot development is more interesting for how the audience uncomfortably registers it than for what actually happens onstage.

Then there’s an uncaring medical examiner so disengaged from what she’s supposed to be doing that she even takes a personal phone call to discuss frivolous matters with a friend; Bock balances her with a more humane female partner and by two more characters (also female) who work in the city morgue.

Overall, a few lines of dialogue sing and zing, but too much is heavily weighed down by dramatic irony, which smothers Nate even more than the grave plot twist Bock shovels him into. Anne Kaufman’s tactful directing and Laura Jellinek’s cleverly realized set help somewhat, and David Hyde Pierce is the perfect actor to bring Nate to vivid life, which is more than can be said for A Life.

Rodney Richardson and Dan Amboyer in Squash (photo: Joan Marcus)
Still prolific at age 86, A.R. Gurney has, for his latest offering at the Flea Theater—the last at the company’s current location before it moves to new digs soon—written a pair of academia-related plays, Ajax and Squash, under the clever rubric Two Class Acts.

Too bad both of these modest one-act plays are merely agreeable. Ajax follows the initial antagonism and eventual relationship between a Greek lit professor and her precocious male student, whose modernized version of Sophocles’s tragedy Ajax shakes up the classroom by transposing the action to today’s fraught political climate. Despite likeable performances by Rachel Lin (teacher) and Chris Tabet (student) and clever use of the Flea’s smallest space—audience members are seated at classroom desks—Gurney’s Ajax feels half-baked and, even more damagingly, half-witted.

Squash is marginally more engaging. Professor Dan Proctor is initially irritated, then intrigued, by his student Gerald’s pronounced sexual interest in him. (Gerald first glimpses Dan’s naked body in the school locker room after a game of squash.) Gurney makes some amusing jokes at the characters’ expense, but, after allowing Dan to explore his confused sexuality for awhile, hotfoots it back to heterosexual safety, with nothing apparently lost—or gained.

If Gurney doesn’t go deeply enough, his actors do, especially Dan Amboyer, who makes Dan’s wavering sympathetic (and funny). Stafford Arima directs with a light touch, which helps Gurney’s civilized but superficial writing.

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