'The Best We Could' does better than its best
Going to see a play you know nothing about can be a terrible experience — the last thing anyone wants to do is to shell out time and money for something that won't be an enjoyable experience.
But as a lover of live theatre and someone taking Rutgers' Theatre Appreciation class this semester, I'm here to take that risk for you and let you know that Emily Feldman's "The Best We Could (a family tragedy)" is more than worth the cost of your travel and ticket.
Staged by the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center, "The Best We Could" is so triumphant it might be hard for those with less knowledge of the theatre world to believe it's an off-Broadway show just recently out of previews.
But the show is unique, each cast member is pitch-perfect and each beat of dialogue will have you laughing, crying or covering your mouth in shock.
We follow the story of an aimless 30-something, Ella, and her father, Lou, played by Aya Cash and Frank Wood, respectively, as they embark on a road trip across the country after the death of their family dog.
"The Best We Could" takes typical road trip tropes and turns them on their heads with both its unique structure and excellent performances, including an instance where the show's strange quadruple casting of the mysterious narrator known as Maps, played flawlessly by Maureen Sebastian, all clicks into place.
We watch the family at the show's center — rounding out the cast with praise-worthy performances are Brian D. Coats and Constance Shulman as a family friend, Marc, and the family's matriarch, Peg, respectively — crumble over the expectations they have for one another, the lies they tell one another, the things they avoid and the love they share.
The triumphs and pitfalls of ambition, gendered harassment, grief and loss are all handled so adeptly by the performers and the script that it's hard to turn away from the show. Even with the small, basically bare stage and the 90-minute, no intermission runtime — which it glides through with the ease of a well-oiled 90-minute movie – you can't help but be entranced by the play.
The sparse stage setting, to its credit, really works here. We flow in and out of location and time so frequently that any more changes to the set dressing than the minimal ones the play already featured would be distracting and cumbersome for the cast and crew. I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of the show's production, and the staging was no different.
Cash is the emotional anchor of the play. Though fans might recognize her from "The Boys" or "You're The Worst," she transforms fully into Ella, perfectly portraying her struggle with her potential as she strains under the weight of parental expectations.
Wood is the perfect companion for her on stage, and seeing how our perceptions of the father, daughter and their relationship shift on stage is a testament to their skills. Shulman bounces off her on-stage husband and daughter seamlessly, and each syllable works to flesh out her character, even as Cash and Wood undeniably take center stage.
But my favorite part of the show was found in the character of Maps, who narrates to the audience, steps in to play individuals outside of the core four and directs the other characters — sometimes against their will — throughout the show.
Sebastian seamlessly slips through the identities of all these characters, making us laugh and breaking our hearts in equal measure. It's easy to forget it's the same actress playing each character and even easier to remember when the reason for it all sinks in.
Overall, "The Best We Could" is an easy watch due to the skill of the production and its entertainment value, and a hard one for the heartstrings. If you're looking to step off-Broadway for your next theatregoing experience, give "The Best We Could" a try.
Audience advisories for the show, both in terms of content and effect warnings, can be found here. So if you plan on taking the trip from Rutgers to see the show (I suggest taking a train from the New Brunswick Train Station into Penn Station), happy theatregoing!