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02/28/2014 02:14 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2014

"Ode to Joy": Craig Lucas's Search for Truth in the Bottom of a Bottle

"Truth is hard," Adele exclaims to a woman who came to buy one of her paintings and ends up her lover in Craig Lucas's powerful new play Ode to Joy. It can also be agonizing and devastating and it will take Adele 15 years of havoc and heartache to discover just how hard the truth can be.

Adele is an alcoholic and addict and she will descend to the depths of hell, taking all she loves with her, buoyantly smiling all the way while telling herself that everything is OK. She is further convinced that if anything is amiss in her life it is the fault of Bill and Mala, her two partners over the decade and a half we get to know her.

Lucas's play, a Rattlestick production at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is at heart a staged qualification for an A.A. meeting, and as stories go it is one of the most riveting and destructive one can imagine. The title comes from Schiller's poem of the same name, which Beethoven also used as the text for the majestic quartet with chorus in the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony, a few bars of which are heard early in the play. But joy, as we learn, is transient.

Like most drinking stories, this one begins in a bar. Adele is trying to get a drink from a busy barmaid when she notices a man openly crying in one corner. Good heart that she is, she goes over to cheer him up. This is Bill, a cardiac surgeon, and he has a sob story, a pickup line of woe (his wife suicided while six months pregnant and he also may have cancer) that Adele is more than willing to fall for.

Knocking back vodka and Scotch in industrial quantities they flirt with conversation ranging from religion and Kierkegaard to the meanings of love and irony to their favorite breed of dog. Before the evening is over Adele will be in Bill's apartment, both of them falling-down drunk, and consummate their affair amid broken glass, blood, vomit, and laughter. Rather than a typical one-night fling, however, this one will end in a wedding, a house, a child, and a dog.

Lucas is a playwright who has never been afraid to take risks, and Ode to Joy, which is told in flashbacks and real time under the playwright's own spellbinding and understated direction, is a bold and unflinching look at the damage and suffering alcoholism and addiction inflicts not only on the user but also on anyone in his or her circle of family and friends, even the dog.

The entire play is something of a gamble. Drunks, after all, are neither funny nor pitiable for long. But Lucas pulls no punches in his two-hour play, especially in dealing with the insidious nature of the disease. At one point, when Adele has finally found her way to A.A.'s rooms, she attempts to make her Fifth-Step amends with Bill, who is still drinking and lures her into a disastrous slip and second marriage.

Kathryn Erbe delivers a gut-wrenching tour-de-force as Adele. She is a happy drunk, at least on the surface, attractive, amiable, and good-natured, the sort of girl anyone, male or female, would try to hit on in a bar. She also manages to hold it together, even when she's sneaking vodka into her water bottle to deceive a lover who thinks she's on the wagon. One of the hardest roles for any actor is playing a convincing drunk, but Erbe's performance as Adele is a model of how it's done.

No less credible is Arliss Howard as Bill, though his character is more an angry drunk, combative and argumentative, mad at the world, except for those few brief moments when the amber glow of Scotch brings him a fleeting sense of well-being. And Roxana Hope is excellent as Mala, the wounded lover who decides she must leave Adele for her own sanity.

Ode to Joy is at times painful to watch, but anyone who has ever loved or even known an alcoholic or addict will identify with it and find that Lucas has fearlessly pursued his own hard truth. And that in itself is a source of joy.

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