I experienced a sharp moment of panic in the first few moments of Ode to Joy, which begins with Adele (Kathryn Erbe) screaming and painting phantom brushstrokes across the fourth wall for some time before delivering the play’s first line, “This is the story of how the pain goes away.” My first thought was of the press agent’s last words to me: the play is two hours long. Two more minutes seemed too much to ask. Yet after a brief preamble, playwright Craig Lucas goes from cringe-inducing to finding genuine laughs in a pregnant alcoholic’s suicide. It is a beginning that highlights both the best and worst of what Mr.Lucas’ latest play has to offer. The straight misery is embarrassingly bad but the humor-tinged misery succeeds greatly.
One night Adele, a plucky painter and seer of truth, finds Bill (Arliss Howard) at a bar, weeping over the six-year-old suicide of his wife. After a few drinks they decide to get a dog and get married. Then the liquor really starts flowing. Ode to Joy rocks back and forth in time, reflecting on Adele’s failed relationship with Marla (Roxanna Hope), the only woman she ever loved, while moving forward with Bill, the only man she ever marries. Both relationships are marred by Adele’s drug addiction, an indiscriminate hunger for altered states that runs the gamut from plain old alcohol to dog medicine.
Mr. Howard is excellent, charming and capable of flowing naturally through dialogue that could easily stall at references to Kierkegaard’s irony, dopamine studies and Christological analyses. In her first appearance, Ms. Hope transitions from indifferent professionalism to purring sensuality in a way that quickly establishes her as a strong presence on the stage. Ms. Erbe is not on quite the level of her co-stars but never falters entirely with the material—the three make the first hour a pleasure.
Unfortunately, Ode to Joy is a comedy about serious matters that saves its seriousness for its second half. It may be the success of the first act that makes it hard for the gravity of the heavier content to stick. Dead pets, crack use, and a heaping dose of cancer all seem vague and unthreatening. Layering on the suffering late in the game is at least an authentic trajectory for Adele before it all crumbles into unconvincingly tidy resolutions, topped with a simply god-awful last line. Although the humor never fades entirely, it leaves one yearning for a more balanced approach. Instead, the play itself moves like an addict. It starts with blind, reeling delight before falling into the dreary slog of apologies and amends.