You’re going to see A Life at Playwrights Horizons, a major Off-Broadway theater that’s known for its commitment to new American plays, but still has a not-always-very-adventurous subscription audience to please. You’re seeing a new play by Adam Bock, known for work that’s screamingly funny but with a glimpse of the surreal, the anarchic depths of humanity under the surface. The piece is directed by Anne Kauffman, a ”leading light of downtown theater,” according to The New York Times. The lead actor is David Hyde Pierce, known for both an iconic sitcom role and starring in Spamalot. The marketing materials talk a lot about astrology; when you arrive at the theater, you find horoscopes over the paper towel dispensers and on the stall doors in the restroom. And when it begins, with David Hyde Pierce alone on stage in his living room, playing a semi-neurotic single middle-aged gay guy, delivering—with just the right balance of enthusiasm and ruefulness—a wry, self-aware monologue about astrology and loneliness and fears of intimacy, you think you know exactly what you’re getting.
You settle in, ready to enjoy, to laugh and to remark on the excellence of the production (Pierce’s warm “regular-guy” charm; Laura Jellinek’s set of well-appointed mid-century modern living room, with rich oranges and matte grays; Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design filling the space with humorously realistic ambient urban sound); to hopefully be surprised here and there, but already thinking that maybe there won’t be too much to this play after all.
Spoiler alert: A Life is setting you up, steering you to trip over your own expectations. It lulls you with the first twenty minutes of a thoroughly charming, highly digestible, perhaps a teeny bit predictable, clever drawing room comedy about a slightly self-absorbed single gay man, Nate (Pierce), who’s recently been dumped and is questioning his own ability to sustain relationships, and his more self-absorbed best friend, Curtis (Brad Heberlee). It’s witty, sprightly, full of engaging anecdote and quirky detail. It gives you a dash of food for thought: Nate’s philosophically questionable musings about astrology, truth, and fate. He banters with his friend in the park; he comes home with his dry-cleaning muttering about not wanting to sit next to a coworker anymore.
And then the play pivots into something else entirely, with a long, silent actionless beat, a beat that stops the play dead in its tracks, filling the space with nothing but ambient sound: car alarms outside, that neighbor who yells for Gary, the tones of text messages and voicemails coming in unanswered to Nate’s phone. It’s a really peculiar thing, to sit in an audience for a lengthening period of silence—but not darkness. It slips between feeling like a mistake and feeling like a Quaker meeting (which Nate has earlier described). You feel the audience around you shifting, restless or uncomfortable or inquisitive but then gradually, collectively, settling in to whatever’s happening next.
That pivot turns out to be both narrative and then quite literal; the stylish domestic interior upends itself and the play opens up to let in the outside world: Curtis, and Nate’s family, but also various representatives of bureaucracies and institutions and rituals (all played by the excellent ensemble of Marinda Anderson, Nedra McClyde, and Lynne McCollough), and the ordinary moments of those other people’s lives: a phone call taken at an inappropriate time, a discussion about cars, a long story about a sister who got arrested for punching a “meter maid guy.”
But that feeling of certainty, of comfort, never comes back; the play keeps shifting after that: place to place, tone to tone, character to character. Nate is always central, but not with that hyper-verbal, self-deprecating, self-analyzing monologue; he and the play have become something else entirely.
Nate says that your astrology chart is “a like a snapshot of the heavens the moment [you were] born.” At first, it seems like A Life is going to be that snapshot of Nate’s life, from chart—birth—to now. The play is really after something both deeper and broader: What is the meaning of any particular life? How do we ever learn to take the measure of that question? Where are the boundaries drawn around a life? How interwoven is one life with another? It sneaks up on you with those questions, cleverly leading you down a sunlit garden path until it suddenly drops you in deep woods, so it never feels ponderous or self-consciously philosophical. But still, turn by turn, upended expectation after upended expectation, it takes you someplace dark, sometimes even bleak, but always filled with compassion for and wonder at the arc of a human existence.