Review: In ‘The Best We Could,’ the Players Follow Directions

A bare stage is like a blank canvas; it’s all potential until the artists start framing their work. Life can follow a similar logic, as every movement is a wall of opportunity that narrows both focus and the way forward.

Ella (Aya Cash), the drifting millennial daughter in The Best We Could (a family tragedy) that opened Wednesday at New York City Center, has had her enough careers back and forth (modern dance, a museum gift shop ). that she wrote a children’s book about giving up on your dreams. (She also teaches chair yoga.)

We learn all of this from a narrator named Maps (Maureen Sebastian), who welcomes audiences into the Manhattan Theater Club’s production, introducing each character in biting detail and dictating the plot and dialogue before they happen.

It’s a fitting way of giving directions, since the nominal main part of the play is a cross-country road trip that Ella takes with her father, Lou (Frank Wood), to pick up a rescue dog. At the time of their trip, Ella has just broken up with her girlfriend, while Lou, who is nearing retirement age, is looking for a job in research. Along the way, they visit Lou’s closest friend and former colleague, Marc (Brian D. Coats), and Lou enlists his help in landing the gig. His wife, Peg (Constance Shulman), chimes in through phone calls with Ella and Lou and pops up in revealing flashbacks.

The actors are immaculately cast and deliver unaffected and subtly stunning performances. Their characters form a kind of primal family, their dynamics both convincingly idiosyncratic and broadly representative of relationships that bind husbands, wives and generations.

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Playwright Emily Feldman achieves a compelling depth of field beyond her characters’ superficial actions and even their biting, often somber powers of observation. (Tragedy seems like a misnomer in most of the show’s 90 minutes, which are laced with light but deceptively dark humor.) Cosmic questions lurking beneath everyday routines seem to emerge from the periphery of director Daniel Aukins’ minimal, but sneaking in imaginative staging – the loudest beings, is that really all life is all about?

Feldman’s multi-layered examination of consumer capitalism, kinship, and gendered power imbalances, which she unearths in The Best We Could in the manner of family secrets, is more than that: There’s no escaping those you love, or the truth. Though it may also come as no surprise to learn that Lou, like the kind of men he represents, is in the midst of a crisis of his own making.

Aimlessness in itself is a kind of privilege for Ella. As her father points out, there was a reason she could take ballet classes, buy anything she wanted at the mall, and drive her own car. If there’s an element of short-sightedness in Feldman’s otherwise insightful play, it’s the cultural quirk of someone who has the luxury of blowing in the breeze to try this or that, with a safety net to catch them if they fall.

The Best We Could (A Family Tragedy)
Through March 26 at New York City Center, Tier I; Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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