Craig Lucas' Ode to Joy is strangely named. It's more of a meditation on the nature of addiction -- and the disturbing codependency it produces. Now at the Cherry Lane Theater, the three-person drama addresses the nature of art, truth and relationships.
Three damaged people -- Adele (Kathryn Erbe), Mala (Roxanna Hope) and Bill (Arliss Howard) -- wrestle with alcoholism. (Lucas has been open about his own struggles.)
Bill, a cardiac surgeon, is a big fan of Kierkegaard; and while the noted philosopher was critical of the church, he focused on issues of morality, irony and the individual's subjective relationship to Jesus, an odd interest for a Jew. Why is Bill fascinated? Apparently, Jesus' celebrity trumps all.
Then again, in his various diatribes on irony, Bill rails against the "inconsistency that drives us mad." However, as Ode to Joy makes clear, addicts have a logic all their own. And as an alcoholic, he's naturally drawn to dysfunctional artist Adele, who never met a drink she didn't like. The only consistency he discovers is their joint ability to sustain addictions.
Perhaps that's why she's so taken with tormented images; her art fills Mala, an earlier lover, with dread: "I do not understand why people make art that upsets other people." For Adele, art is truth and "truth is hard." (Lucas, via Adele, also rails against the myopia of reviewers.) The truth here is that addiction ruins lives. Bill and Adele are raw, broken people who cannot, or according to Mala, will not change their lives. True joy may be acceptance, but destructive tendencies only engender sadness and, all too often, repetition.
Lucas, known for Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless and Longtime Companion, is adept at creating moving situations, both comic and dramatic. The performances here are strong and the emotions honest and real, but Ode plays more as a series of articulate rants than cohesive drama.
"Ode to Joy," the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, is a hymn that celebrates the unity of all mankind. It's playing, ironically, in the bar where Bill and Adele meet. In Lucas' hands, the title is just another irony. And such a painful one, you understand why they want to drown their sorrows.
Photo credit: Sandra Coudert