Review: In The Best We Could (A Family Tragedy), Life Is a Road Trip With a Foregone Conclusion
Emily Feldman writes a wallop of a final scene in The Best We Could (A Family Tragedy), directed by Daniel Aukin in its long-awaited world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club. This concluding vignette is indeed the “tragedy” portion of the playwright’s self-proclaimed “family tragedy,” but being a road trip play, any theoretical spoilers are just Feldman emphasizing journey over destination. The looming view of the finish line, in fact, is what makes every mile traveled so gutting.
MTC is no stranger to the family play, and more often than not, such stories take place in finely upholstered living rooms or spacious kitchens suited for screaming matches. The Best We Could‘s description as a “father-daughter cross-country road trip” certainly sounds like one of those set on wheels. But with nary a furnishing or bucolic backdrop in sight (Lael Jellinek designs the stage like a stripped-down rehearsal space anchored by a single carpet with fully visible entrances and exits), early impressions turn out to be wildly misleading in the best possible way.
At the risk of saying too much, The Best We Could draws elements of Our Town and Death of a Salesman into the #MeToo era. Lou (Frank Wood), an out-of-work research scientist, travels to California to pick up a new puppy and drives back across the country with his 36-year-old daughter Elle (Aya Cash), an adrift millennial without the specific career or relationship ambitions that defined the milestones of her father’s generation. Their trip is guided by a fourth-wall-shattering narrator figure called Maps (Maureen Sebastian, beautifully slipping into a few other significant characters throughout the play as well). Rather than observing, she mandates action — embodying a physical and emotional GPS system that is more a proprietor of what ”is” than what ”ought” to be. It’s a distinction that can break a heart countless times over the course of a life.
This close-quarters tour of America brings out some standard-grade generational differences between father and daughter: Elle criticizes the slave-owning male faces on Mount Rushmore; Lou walks Elle through the simple steps that lead to the logical conclusion of motherhood; and workplace sexual harassment turns out to mean very different things to each of them. We discover this through their responses to an anecdote shared by Lou’s former co-worker and good friend Marc (Brian D. Coats), whom they meet in Denver on their way east in Lou’s effort to snag a sudden opening at Marc’s company.
Feldman hits her tinniest notes when she plops Elle onto a moralizing soapbox. Cash is incapable of delivering a false performance and is a master of the wry humor Feldman embeds in her disenchanted character who has hilariously been made the author of a book about “giving up on your dreams” — a perfect contribution to the grotesque self-help genre. But that doesn’t keep us from feeling that we’re swimming in the shallow end of a pool when Feldman’s characters reiterate familiar talking points about millennial vs. baby boomer opinions on the patriarchy.
Where the play bursts open again is in its mining of less-explored ideological differences — the ones about how to build a life that’s worth living. Wood, in his effortlessly natural portrayal of the everyman (dressed to beige perfection by costume designer Anita Yavich), gives a compelling argument for a life with goalposts. He shares this measured existence with his wife, Peg, played by the indomitable Constance Shulman, who encapsulates the necessity of having the next thing on the schedule to look forward to. Elle, however, is of the generation that shirks timelines, schedules, and all external affirmations of selfhood. Perhaps it’s more enlightened, but it doesn’t help much with the task of getting through a day.
Patriarchal corruption is certainly somewhere in this Venn diagram of clashing epochs, but the seams tying these two topics together are often all too visible. Their moments of overlap, however, are incredibly powerful and lend the play a crushing final stage picture that Aukin crafts to perfection. Ultimately, we find that discovering a loved one may have participated in morally reprehensible behavior is disillusioning — but a life with no more turns on the horizon is a tragedy.