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Playwright as Backseat Driver: “The Best We Could”

Acts of deceptions are all around in Emily Feldman’s middling The Best We Could, an Our Town-inspired glance at a family in transition. Notice that I did not say “examination,” or “rumination,” or “study.” “Glance.” This show, stacked as it is with top-tier creative talent on and offstage, has plans entirely of its own, none of which plumb terribly deep.

Ella (Aya Cash), a 36-year-old yoga instructor in Los Angeles and in a creative, personal, and professional rut. An erstwhile New Jersey native who double majored in art history and philosophy, she’s treading water. An illustrated book about giving up on one’s dreams – “I didn’t see anything out there for kids debunking the myth that hard work will lead to a better life” – doesn’t seem to be opening any doors for her, and she’s coming out of a bad relationship with her girlfriend.

So she – grudgingly – accepts a proposal from her mother, Nan (Constance Schulman). Since the family dog has died, her father, Lou (Frank Wood) will fly out to the West Coast, where the two can then drive cross-country on their way to finding a new rescue dog and transporting them back home. Peg has concocted a lie to convince the recently unemployed Lou to make the trek, making Ella complicit. Little does she know all three family members are hiding truths in plain sight.

Stories involving road trips don’t usually work well on the stage (I’m mighty curious to see how the forthcoming adaptation of Thelma & Louise will travel), but the car time that comprises plenty of Best works quite well, helped in no small part by the humane work of Cash and Wood, a very believable daughter and father fruitlessly navigating a widening gulf of cultural and generational estrangement.

The play moves in a semi-linear fashion. In current times, Ella and Lou visit his friend and old colleague, Marc (Brian D. Coats); we also see a time from years earlier when Marc paid a visit to Lou and Peg. While Peg mostly comes in as a voice on the phone, sometimes she’s also a participant in scenes both past and present. Since director Daniel Aukin’s bare-bones production offers no visual cues or context (very bare: Lael Jellinek’s scenic design comprises of a rug and some furniture to the periphery of the stage), it can be tricky to decipher exactly when and where some of the action takes place and what some of the characters are enduring in a specific moment. Matt Frey’s subtle, exquisite lighting design goes a long way toward establishing the tone of the ever-shifting settings, however.

What actually hurts the play a bit, however, is a structural theatricality on Feldman’s part. In a meta-theatrical stroke, she has introduced the audience to Maps (Maureen Sebastian), a Stage Manager-esque narrator who helps orient the audience across the carious locations and years during which The Best They Could takes place. She also speaks directly to the characters, offering what sounds like celestial guidance. Sometimes you can also feel Feldman’s views peeing out from under her characters. When Ella and Lou stop at Mount Rushmore, her response, “a four-headed sarcophagus, etched in the image of four dead men who did more than four terrible things,” doesn’t necessarily feel organic in the moment.

While Cash and Wood have plenty of emotional dirt to play with in Feldman’s sandbox, Coats and Schulman are less lucky. The former is often relegated to sitting and waiting to be spoken to most of the time; the latter is, unfortunately, more of an engine to keep the play’s wheels in motion. Bother performers deserve better. So, too, does Sebastian, who essays a series of minor roles in addition to Maps but gets saddled with a crazy assignment: the role of Marc’s wife, Karen, an Orlando native who takes on a French accent. This quirk is an odd fit for what is mostly an otherwise solemn show, and it’s also, weirdly, more backstory than is ever given for Peg.

Eventually, this erratic road trip drama shifts gears and becomes a very different show, shunting Cash to the backseat and revealing Best to hate its lead character. Ellipsis gives way to exposition, and the playwright expects our sympathies to shift away from Frank to a different, heretofore unexamined character. What was ethereal becomes expository, what we once believed starts to run in the face of credulity – late in the play, a character hops a last-minute round-trip flight from the East Coast to Denver and seems to return home some time close to dinner. Huh? This doesn’t just strain realism, it permanently fractures it, and just at the moment Feldman seems to be revealing a thesis that owes a few debts to Death of a Salesman without having absorbed some of the fundamental lessons of tragedy on display in the Arthur Miller masterpiece. This enmity for its own immediately stalls the show. A playwright should shine a light on the truth; Feldman, the voice in our ear throughout The Best We Could, proves to be a most untrustworthy one.

The Best We Could

City Center Stage I