If you want to watch people wracked with pain enjoying themselves, I recommend “Ode To Joy,” a romantic comedy for the S&M set (spiritually speaking), which examines the relationship of addiction to art. Is it a choice or is it a disease? The suffering artist is held up before us for our entertainment, like Jesus on the Cross. Not for the faint of heart.
Lucas feels he’s been persecuted by the critics and he lets it all hang out. The title is an allusion to Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. In the play, it’s ironic and at the same time we’re meant to take it as The Truth. Lucas’s protagonist, the painter Adele (Kathryn Erbe), says at the end, preaching from the pulpit of Art: “True joy is acceptance.” A hard pill to swallow after ecstasy.
This could be Lucas’s blatant bid for a Pulitzer. Incredibly, he has Adele assure us, “I’m not dying at the moment, so there won’t be any Pulitzer prizes…” But she’s a compulsive liar, ergo…is she dying? and will he get one? Or just a lifetime achievement award from AA?
Yes, the agony and the ecstasy (pun intended) of the long-suffering artist – that cliché – Lucas manages to bring to life onstage. I had a hard time with the central character of Adele because she seems “innocent.” Erbe plays Adele as the “Ingenue in the fairy tale” wearing a red dress (evocative costumes by Catherine Zuber) between two ‘grown-up’ lovers Bill (Arliss Howard) and Mala (Roxanna Hope), who both fall for her.
From a psychological standpoint, I didn’t buy her portrait of the artist as an addict. But I did believe the suffering she was able to convey at the start and end of the play in the act of painting. The invisible fourth wall is her canvas. There was exaltation in pain.
“This is the story of how the pain goes away,” Adele tells us at the start. Looming behind her is a bar (set by Andrew Boyce). She takes us back to a Pick-up Scene, once upon a time. We have all been there. Adele meets Bill, a cardiologist who studied Greek philosophy. Howard does a great job making Bill believable with his dead-on visceral, disillusioned drunk.
As they grope for an understanding of what it means to love, Jesus and Kierkegaard lend a hand. Here, and in the scene at Bill’s loft above the bar, where the couple fall down drunk and bleeding on broken glass, Lucas shows he has an ear for the dialogue of bull-shitters, aka the self-deluded.
I realized days later that I wasn’t watching a realistic drama, even though, ironically, Lucas uses naturalistic dialogue and the contemporary symbols of our culture, e.g., the cell phone, which houses Adele’s enormous paintings. Yet, something else entirely is going on, and I meanwhile, lagging behind, was holding the play to some kind of naturalistic notion of what a play is, and Lucas cleverly plays with those expectations.
If you can accept this work of art on its own terms, you might actually enjoy it a whole lot more than I did. It comes across as a philosophical exercise in defining abstractions, which are embodied in the action, like love and forgiveness, but it really does soar into apocalyptic heights.
I would go so far as to say we are watching the progress of a soul at Golgotha. Not to everyone’s taste, admittedly. But there is humor here. “Even if Jews killed Jesus, it was only for like two days,” says Adele. When Adele’s partner Mala, believably portrayed by Roxanna Hope as the savvy pharmaceutical rep who falls for her, is lying ill in a hospital bed, awaiting a heart transplant, the TV documentary voice slices in with a grisly description of contemporary crucifixion performed for the masses. “That’s entertainment!” exclaims Adele. So too is the spectacle before us celebrating pain.
If someone had warned me in advance, I think I would have enjoyed the experience more. As it was, it caught me off-guard and grabbed me by the throat and would not let go. I went in at one end and came out a completely different place. That’s what Art does. It changes you. It wakes you up. It makes you feel what you don’t want to feel. Consider this a warning. Go, worship at the altar of Art, courtesy Craig Lucas. See his “Ode to Joy.” Just be prepared to feel something.
ODE TO JOY WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Craig Lucas.
WITH: Kathryn Erbe; Roxanna Hope; and Arliss Howard.
Set design by Andrew Boyce; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Paul Whitaker; sound by Daniel Kluger; properties by Raphael Mishler; special effects by James Hunting; fight direction by Unkledave’s Fight-House, David Anzuelo and Jesse Geguzis, co-fight directors; assistant director, John Michael Diresta; stage manager, Michael Denis; assistant stage manager, Andrew Slater; production stage manager, Eugenia Furneaux; graphic design by Achilles Lavidis; casting by Calleri Casting; publicity by Don Summa, Richard Kornberg & Associates; Marketing by Leanne Schanzer Promotions, Inc. Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, David Van Asselt, artistic director; Brian Long, managing director. By special arrangement with The Cherry Lane Theatre under the direction of Angelina Fiordellisi. At The Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, West Village, Manhattan. www.thecherrylanetheatre.org (212) 989-2020. www.rattlestick.org Through March 30. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.