NEW YORK—Few play titles are as dead-on and deliberately incomplete as Adam Bock’s “A Life,” a quietly powerful drama having its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons.
Nate Martin (David Hyde Pierce) is a 50-something man living alone in New York City after a breakup with his latest lover. He’s still reeling from this event, even though he’s loath to admit it.
Nate has a long-standing problem with intimacy and telling people how he really feels, which those in his Thursday group therapy sessions have pointed out to him more than once.
This information, and much more, is revealed by Nate himself. The show starts off with with a 25-minute monologue by Pierce in which we learn how Nate’s relationship problems stretch back more than 20 years; how his relationship with his mother mirrored those his mom had with her mother, and how some people are impossible to please no matter how hard you try.
We also learn how Nate, during a moment of crisis, was introduced to the world of astrology and how he’s used the stars to try to make sense of the way his life has been going.
All of this serves to paint Nate as a somewhat pathetic loser: He’s stuck in a dead-end job, has many acquaintances but few close friends, and wants to change his life but is unwilling to take steps to do so. In short, he’s like a quite large portion of the population.
This everyman quality not only makes Nate endearing to the audience but also at times strikes a bit close to home. The scene where we hear Nate’s thoughts as he wanders around his apartment, putting stuff away, trying to find something he misplaced, and so on, is something just about everyone can relate to.
Shortly thereafter, events take a dramatic turn when tragedy strikes, directly affecting Nate, his best friend Curtis (Brad Heberlee), and Nate’s sister Lori (Lynne McCollough).
The remainder of the play shows how those affected, and those in the periphery of their orbit, deal with death.
Playwright Bock shows how there is an entire industry set up for the care and handling of the departed. These people’s seemingly businesslike or flippant attitude is simply a way to deal with what is just another job for those who have no personal investment in the deceased.
At the same time, the play shows the human side of that equation as the main characters are forced to interact with that world. One particularly heart-wrenching moment occurs when people are going through the belongings of the deceased as it’s pointed out that things a person once loved dearly are now simply going to be tossed away.
Another theme running through the story is just how fleeting everyone’s time in this world can be. Nate, for example, has a “to-do” list sitting next to his computer, a list that goes on for pages. This fact provokes a knowing laugh from the audience, and it also illustrates that we should take care of the more important things sooner rather than later—such as getting over stubbornness and calling someone cared about instead of waiting for that someone to break down and call first.
Pierce is excellent here, taking Bock’s words and bringing the character of Nate completely to life. He shows Nate to be a not-all-that-interesting man, but one filled with feelings, regrets, and hopes that are instantly recognizable and identifiable to everyone.
Heberlee and McCollough also work well in their roles, as their characters prove to be different aspects of the world that Nate has created for himself.
Credit also goes to director Anne Kauffman, who guides the piece with a sure hand, never allowing things to become overtly maudlin or comical. In this way, she makes sure the audience never forgets the humanity in the situation. A particularly strong sequence occurs in consecutive scenes when no dialogue is spoken and we only hear the sounds and shouts of the city; this serves to indicate the passage of time after the traumatic event.
Depicting an existence that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time means everything to those involved, “A Life” offers a very touching portrayal of a life lived and not lived. And it is a stark reminder of how fleeting it all can be.
Also featuring Nedra McClyde and Marinda Anderson.
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and reviewer for stagebuzz.com