NEW YORK (AP) — If you want to be puzzled by a play, look no farther than Adam Bock's "A Life," which begins strongly but then peters out. Despite an affecting performance by Tony- and Emmy-Award winner David Hyde Pierce, the play is disappointing.
The world premiere, directed with some macabre touches by Anne Kauffman, ("Smokefall" and "Detroit") opened Monday night off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Bock, whose earlier play "A Small Fire" was insightful and poignant, here gives his truth-seeking protagonist a sudden twist of fate that removes the most interesting character from this ultimately confusing production.
David Hyde Pierce is sweetly affecting as Nate, a lonely, middle-aged gay man on a never-ending quest for true love and the meaning of life. For about half an hour, Pierce holds our rapt attention while Nate engagingly muses out loud about past roommates and lovers, pores over his astrology chart with wry asides, discusses his relationship-support group, and enjoys a park visit with his lifelong best friend, Curtis (Brad Heberlee, nicely understated). Nate shares a few nuggets he's gleaned, including, "The truth is so hard to find and it's almost impossible to hold onto."
Spoiler alert: Then Nate drops dead on stage. And slumps there for several long, tedious minutes while nothing happens except sound and lighting effects indicating that a day or so passes. The relief we feel when Nate is finally discovered is abruptly upended (along with the entire stage, quite literally) when we find ourselves in a mortuary.
Marinda Anderson and Nedra McClyde share some amusing conversation as mortuary staffers attending to Nate's body. The mundane nature of their respectful yet workaday treatment of the body compared with Nate's earnest searching for meaning amid planetary alignments hits home, of course. But the prolonged fussing around the body feels unnecessary.
By the time the stage has portentously — or pretentiously — tilted backward for the second time, Bock's set-upending has revealed itself to be a lot of creaking signifying nothing. Lynne McCollough as Nate's out-of-town sister sweetly delivers a tremulous eulogy. Then, disturbingly, we hear Nate describing what he hears during his burial. He reappears, saying enthusiastically, "I have so much to tell you," but only imparts gibberish before the play ends abruptly.
The limits of time, life's elusive meaning, inevitable mortality — Bock incorporates these themes without particularly illuminating them. Fans of Pierce will want to see this anyhow, while audience members who mull over the intended message may have to conclude that it remains as unknowable as the meaning of life.