The Lucky Ones and the Not-So-Lucky Ones
The Bengsons continue their off-Broadway blitz with a musical tale of paradise lost.
The characters in The Lucky Ones are having a crisis of faith. They were raised to believe that "God is the space between people," but what happens when that space is invaded by pure horror? This world premiere from Ars Nova at the Connelly Theater unpacks a brutal crime that springs from the nightmarish void left in the absence of parental supervision and a clearly defined moral code.
This musical-concert hybrid is the latest offering from Shaun and Abigail Bengson. They're the couple behind Hundred Days, the tuneful and narcissistic theatrical concert about their love-at-first-sight romance that played New York Theatre Workshop earlier this season. With a book coauthored by Sarah Gancher, The Lucky Ones is also autobiographical, maybe: "This is a true story," says Shaun at the top of the show, "even the parts that never happened."
Truth is a slippery subject at Blue Mountain School, the private academy founded and run by Abigail's family that is at the center of this tale. "Question everything," says her father, Tom (Tom Nelis easily embodying the hippie patriarch). This is the kind of school that doesn't really believe in grades or discipline, putting postmodern theory into practice. "Crazy is a construction," Tom further philosophizes.
Several of Abigail's family members teach at the school, including mother Sherrill (Myra Lucretia Taylor), aunt Mary (Maryann Plunkett), cousin Amber (Amelia Workman), and big sister Phoebe (Jennifer Morris). Abigail's sister Emily (Ashley Pérez Flanagan) and cousin Kai (Damon Daunno) also attend (a handy family tree appears in the program, in case you get lost).
When the kids aren't questioning everything in class, they're hanging out behind the gravel plant, "getting as high as we can on what we've got." Kai is pretty high when he meets and falls for the new girl, Emma (Adina Verson). But just as their love beings to blossom, Kai hears the siren call of an angel (an alluring and terrifying Zach McNally) enticing him away from his family. Kai becomes convinced that he is being initiated as an angel himself, a rite that will require sacrifice. Again, he's really high when all this happens.
There's an intoxicating quality to the Bengsons' music, an eclectic mix of bluegrass, folk, rock, and pop. It has the power to take your breath away, especially when delivered with Abigail's volcanic intensity. The entire cast gives passionate performances, with Daunno, in particular, projecting frightening charisma as Kai. Shaun plays multiple instruments throughout the night, with most of the performers crossing the porous border between actor and musician. It is possible to appreciate the virtuosity on display even if you don't really buy the Bengsons' consistently on-brand folksy fabulism (which I didn't).
Director Anne Kauffman, who helmed Hundred Days, brings even more visual heft to The Lucky Ones. She makes excellent use of the various planes and levels in Rachel Hauck's set, which fully occupies the height and depth of the Connelly. As Kai and Emma sing "Take My Hand" downstage, members of the ensemble slip past a pair of upstage door frames holding hands. As chaos reigns on the ground, the angel rages on a platform high above. Kauffman's staging matches the overwhelming quality of the music while straddling the line between reality and fantasy. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting suggests magic and hallucination in equal measure. Sound designer Nick Kourtides reinforces this with alarming echoes and unexplained noises.
Sonya Tayeh illustrates the surging score with convulsive choreography. Powered by what seems like an endless well of hormonal energy, the ensemble goes all out in performing these wild, limb-flinging dances.
Stripped of its soul-stirring music and mystical staging, The Lucky Ones would look a lot like an after-school special with a bang-you-over-the-head moral: Don't do drugs, kids. Yet the tale of a young man whose delusions of grandeur drive him to violence feels especially relevant in 2018, when we see this story repeated every few days on the news. From the ISIS propaganda to Ayn Rand novels, adolescent males can select from a wide variety of mythology telling them that they are uniquely destined for greatness. That's a dangerous thing when pitted against a reality that says the exact opposite.
The Lucky Ones also questions the limits of our compassion. Despite the terrible pain he causes, Kai gets another shot at life when his family members circle their wagons around their wayward son. This forces the audience to ask the question, if they can muster the energy and resources to see Kai through his dark episode, can we do the same for domestic terrorists and mass shooters? Should we? The prospect seems doubtful in a country that, although ever-less outwardly religious, still clings to a subliminal notion of irresistible grace. Some people don't even get first chances, and second chances only ever go to the lucky ones.