THE BEST WE COULD Does What It Does Best – Review
The Best We Could, the new play from Emily Feldman and Manhattan Theatre Club, runs 90 minutes straight through, yet the story stuck with me quite a bit longer. In the New York City Center — Stage I space, this world premiere production uses conversational text and minimalist design to question family, trust, and false hopes. Barring a few surprisingly magical moments, The Best We Could cuts right to the chase and slices through all the conversations best suited for (a family tragedy), the subtitle of the play.
The show begins with unsteady footing, a red flag for what is supposedly a contemporary one-act. That was just the start, though. As the audience settled into their seats (guided by ensemble member Maureen Sebastian, breaking the fourth wall for an “actor acts” moment), and the company took their seats in lightweight chairs scattered across the playing space, everyone seemed to sink into the text simultaneously.
The text, the word choice, the phrasing, etc., is so…comfortable. Feldman, MTC’s 2019-2020 Tow Playwright-In-Residence, has shaped the nuances of familial dynamics into repetitive conversations, each time carrying a completely new meaning. At first, these inclusions feel surface-level. By the second or third or seventh or eighth “Maybe I’ll take the dog for a walk,” the connotation is so far from what it originally was, these characters begging and grappling in situations of life or death, literally. As though the true intentions are much too hard to say.
The company brings a great range to the stage, with Aya Cash’s Ella steering all moving parts in the right direction. Around her orbit, Frank Wood and Constance Shulman play wavering parents; Brian D. Coats an ethical compass of a family friend. Daniel Aukin directs the ensemble, including utility player Sebastian, as a pliable unit, though they remain as fragile as any family in the face of a tragedy.
Overall, the play is not a ground-breaking or boundary-pushing piece of theatre. In fact, many parts feel reminiscent of other recent works: the empty stage introduction of Circle Mirror Transformation, the minimalist road trip setup of Miss You Like Hell. What The Best We Could offers, though, is a very grounded realism. Perhaps the prologue-type interactions, complete with “you’ve got a second to adjust your position in your seat,” is a pre-planned jostling of expectations before a weighty examination of life. For if the audience is seated, in true neutrality, it is difficult not to feel the effects and connect the story's dots to one’s own life.
Despite its slender design and mostly-no-frills presentation, the sensory elements that are included are incredibly well-executed. Where the production’s sound design (Kate Marvin) works precisely to distinguish boundaries and delineate how far this conversation can span, lighting (Matt Frey) eliminates all metaphorical fences, instead bridging the divide between onstage ensemble and audience members. The technical work is subtle and could easily go unnoticed, but to those looking for it, the production is full of delights. And, no spoilers here, a cue related to balloons warranted a fight or flight or cry reaction (I cried).
Of personal note: The Best We Could does make a reference to The Kennedy Curse™, an addition to my running list of MTC plays to do so (most notably, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole in 2006).
The Best We Could (a family tragedy) is now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center — Stage I through March 26. For more information and tickets, click here.