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Must-See: A Life Searches for Queer Intimacy in the Cosmos 

Must-See: A Life Searches for Queer Intimacy in the Cosmos


“Venus has trapped me in her embrace and she refuses to let me go."

From left: Brad Heberlee and David Hyde Pierce. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There's a particular kind of loneliness that thrives in a bustling, overcrowded metropolis. Nate Martin, the central figure in Adam Bock's fascinating and deeply unsettling new play, A Life(running off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater), feels this as a middle-aged man who lives alone in New York City, perpetually disappointed in himself and others.

A "stupid proofreader at a stupid ad agency," by his own description, Nate--played by David Hyde Pierce, with precisely the deadpan poignancy the character requires--has just broken up with Mark, the latest in a string of lovers he recounts in ALife's protracted opening monologue. Mark is the one who ended it, by Nate's account, though we learn that other gay men in Nate's therapy group believe he has a problem with intimacy.

For Nate, the fault lies at least partly in his stars, and in the gods. Having been turned on to astrology some years ago--after losing faith in pretty much everything else--he makes the subject a fixture in his self-analysis. "Venus has trapped me in her embrace and she refuses to let me go," he laments, adding that he was told by a person learned in astrology that Venus and Jupiter--love and luck--will always be at odds in his life.

What exactly is Bock leading us to here? In a program note, the playwright mentions he lost both parents four years ago, in the span of seven weeks. His mother died first, Bock writes, and being "a gentleman," his father then "held the door" for his wife and "followed her through it." Nate may not be inclined toward or even capable of such a bonding of souls, but his ambling monologue--which could stand to lose five or 10 minutes (though the one-act runs only about 85)--makes it clear he's engaged in a search for some connection and meaning. In the next scene, we meet Curtis, Nate's closest and perhaps only friend, who sits patiently as Nate complains about the solipsism of others, only to reveal his own.

What happens next is impossible to relay without delivering a massive spoiler, but suffice it to say that Nate, and Bock, enter another realm. As in previous plays, Bock focuses his wit and compassion on a person, a life, that might otherwise be overlooked, and then drops a bomb. The explosion in A Life is accompanied by a few of the most uncomfortable minutes you will likely ever experience in a theater, minutes that truly set the tone for a play that combines the driest, blackest comedy with genuine spiritual probing.

With exceptional technical assistance -- much of it subtle, none of it flashy or gratuitous-- director Anne Kauffman and her well-cast company bring us back to the world outside Nate's web of angst. We meet characters for whom his foibles are completely inconsequential, people who suffer and worry about and laugh over things that would have similarly little meaning for him. The contrast becomes a source of both bleak humor and affirmation: We come to realize that however disparate their struggles, the struggling itself is shared, and can breed empathy.

Toward the end of the play, Nate's sister, Lori (Lynne McCullough, droll and touching as a suburban fish out of water) is briefly introduced. "He didn't love Milwaukee," she tells us, implicitly suggesting the challenges raised and emotional scars left by growing up gay in a certain time and place. Lori recalls Nate telling their family "he liked being able to just walk out on the street and be surrounded by people...once, he said: 'Sometimes it's easier to be kind to people if you don't know them.' I know that was important to him. To be kind."

Bock won't let Nate, or any of us, off the hook that easily. How could he, after investing so much curiosity and yearning in this character who, for all his cynicism, craves love above all else? Where Nate's search leads can't be divulged here, but it's one that will leave you both shaken and heartened, and feeling maybe just a little more part of the cosmos.

A Life is running through November 27. Find ticket information here.

Elysa Gardner formerly covered theater and music for USA Today. She has also contributed to RollingStone, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, and VH1.

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Elysa Gardner