|THE BEST WE COULD|
By the time Emily Feldman’s touching new play “The Best We Could (a family tragedy),” now at Manhattan Theatre Club -New York City Center Stage I, concludes after 90 minutes, we sadly realize that the show’s title does not foretell the whole story of a family’s travails. Yes, the richly drawn people we meet are, unsurprisingly, flawed; but it’s highly questionable whether any of them have done anywhere near the best they could have with their lives.
Further, while the play’s parenthetical subtitle lets us know not to expect a happy ending, I think this show should come with multiple “trigger warnings” as it touches, sometimes unexpectedly, on numerous subjects likely to disturb certain theatergoers.
Directed with precision by Daniel Aukin on Lael Jellinek’s expansive garage-like set, the show is told in a non-traditional style, with the character of “Maps” (the superb Maureen Sebastian) acting as a kind of “Our Town” stage manager cum narrator who dictates much of the action. One may find this style a bit distancing at times, but it also sometimes lessens the intensity of the piece, which is ultimately a good decision.
The one-act work focuses on a lengthy cross-country road trip between Ella (an affecting Aya Cash), a 36-year-old California resident who has largely given up on life, and her father Lou (the always compelling Frank Wood), a supposedly brilliant scientific researcher who has been strangely unemployed for quite a while and oddly unable to gain a new job.
The primary purpose of the journey is to pick up Lou’s new dog in Kentucky, but it’s also been designed – by Lou’s wife and Ella’s mom, the deeply unhappy Peg (a bracing Constance Shulman) to be a bonding experience -- one she obviously hopes will help the pair out of their respective depressions. She’s even engineered another excuse for the trek, telling Lou that Ella needs company on her drive to New York to meet with a publisher interested in her illustrated children’s book. (The book is real, if likely unpublishable; the meeting is purely fictional.)
The devotion of Ella, an only child, to her father is never in question, even if she finds his insistence that her resume should include her Phi Beta Kappa status irritating or questions his choice of side trips.
Meanwhile, Lou is obviously both his daughter’s biggest cheerleader – repeatedly praising her book -- and harshest critic; for example, chewing her out loudly in front of a local cop (one of many small roles superbly played by Sebastian) for not having her registration in the car (although he is the one who has been caught speeding.)
There’s also a significant altercation after an awkward dinner in Colorado between Ella and the pretentious wife of Lou’s oldest friend Mark (Brian D. Coats), who may be able to offer him a new job. But that dust-up doesn’t stop Ella from secretly returning to Denver days later to confront Mark, whose revelation (which one quickly realizes he doesn’t know has remain untold) leads to the play’s “tragic” denouement.
It can be argued that “The Best We Could” is just the latest in a seemingly endless series of plays about unhappy families; in fact, it shares some similarities to the recent “Pictures from Home.” But as Leo Tolstoy famously wrote a long time ago, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
By Brian Scott Lipton
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