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A CurtainUp Review
Ode to Joy
By Elyse Sommer
An interview with Lucas by Bob Morrister ("The Theater of Faith'and Doubt, Love and Pain", New York Times, February 25) describes Ode to Joy as a "romantic comedy." The play's flashbacks to Adele's (Erbe) first encounters with Bill (Arliss Howard) and Mala (Roxanna Hope), her male and female lovers, are indeed the stuff of that genre.
But this is no ode to the joy of falling in love. Instead, as directed by the author, it's an unsettling and rather muddled mashup of his own history; as well as that of his mother who, like Adele, was a painter with addiction problems. Since Lucas is a prolific, well known stage and screen writer and director (his resume includes librettos for successful musicals like Light in the Piazza, hit plays like Reckless and Prelude to a Kiss, and television dramas like Longtime Companion) this may appear to be mostly his mother's less familiar story. But, as the above mentioned interview explains, addiction can result not just in squandered talent but unwise management of one's financial resources.
Sadly, a play illustrating the horrible toll of addiction is especially timely coming as it does so soon after the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, unlike Lucas, was at the very pinnacle of his career, but nevertheless succumbed to long kept in check addiction. It's too bad that though the problem of addiction is indeed worth exploring dramatically, Adele's story is too heavily weighed down with philosophical discussions and Alcoholics Anonymous business (much of which is currently being questioned). The basic dual theme — the truth is difficult and we can't rely on lovers to help us face life's darkness— is more an O'Neill flavored picture of one woman's long years' journey into sobriety and determination not to compromise herself by creating more saleable and less disturbing art.
Frustrating, and in one instance unpalatable, as many audience members are likely to find Ode to Joy, Mr. Lucas, wearing his hat as a director has elicited fine support for Ms. Erbe's Adele. Arliss Howard is particularly good in the scene where his also addicted and neurotic doctor and Adele meet, get drunk and fall in love. Their weighty talk about Kierkegaard, inconsistency and the meaning of love is buoyed by their instant rapport and a loud recording of Beethoven's finale making her amusingly mis-hear his telling her what he does as actor instead of doctor.
The fifteen years between the bookend scenes showing Adele painting even though she is in agonizing pain, hopscotch between the Adele-Marla affair that precedes the Adele-Bill meeting, marriage and divorce. The first meeting with Marla, like that with Bill, provides some much needed humor. It also gives us an idea of why Adele's canvases, which we never see, aren't selling.
A park bench scene between Adele and Bill is an obvious take on some sort of confessional script that's part of AA's 12-step program. It works mostly as a filler to update us on events not part of the on stage happenings.
The production elements are fine. The scene during which Mala is hospitalized with the medical staff appearing as shadowy figures behind a curtain is particularly effective. But Mala's declaration of "I can't stand this" when confronted with Adele's pain is likely to be the reaction of a good many audience members, as was the case of the substantial number of intermission walkouts at the performance I attended.