Friday, October 28, 2022

Theater Review: At BAM, the Play Provides “A Little Life” That Was Absent In Hanya Yanagihara’s Novel

A Little Life (c) Julieta Cervantes

Theater Review: A Little Life 

Premise: Hanya Yanagihara’s wildly popular 2015 novel “A Little Life” revolves around a group of male friends in New York City, representing various points of the sexuality and racial spectrum (although, curiously, none of the major characters were Asian). There is the talented gay painter, JB (Majd Mardo); the straight, rising movie star Willem (Maarten Heijmans); the bisexual, biracial architect Malcolm (Edwin Jonker); and the sexually ambivalent lawyer Jude (Ramsey Nasr). It takes a while for the novel (which is over 800 pages long) to clue us in as to whose narrative will take over the story, but thankfully director Ivo van Hove and writer Koen Tachelet immediately let us know that the play (which is over four hours long) will focus on Jude. He immediately talks to the audience as well as have discussions with a social worker (Marieke Heebink) about how he handled certain situations with his friends. Although he has occasional trouble walking, he has told his friends he will never discuss his past. (This frustrates JD the most as he made Jude, whom he secretly has a crush on, the subject of an evocative painting.) But things start to unravel when Jude’s mentor Harold (Jacob Derwin) agrees to adopt Jude to give him stability (Harold’s wife Julia, like most of the novel’s female characters, is missing on stage). As happy as this makes Jude, he starts to spiral emotionally as he is finally getting the happy ending he always wanted but doesn’t believe he deserves. We see his childhood in flashbacks to a Catholic orphanage and the many (many!) abuses he faced there. Even his self-harm coping mechanism of cutting himself is not calming his chaotic brain, which prompts his doctor Andy (Bart Skegers) to throw up red flags for his friends to intervene. 

A Little Life (c) Julieta Cervantes

My Take: I was one of the few people who really disliked the novel during the height of its popularity. The enthusiasm has died down since 2015, with readers finding its misery porn overrated. So, I didn’t go out of my way to see this (again) four-hour Dutch production from 2018 in a limited run at BAM. But through happenstance and morbid curiosity, I was able to see the show, and I have to say, van Hove has done a pretty good job in pairing down the excess while still indulging in a lot of it, mostly in the form of blood. Jude wears a clean suit at the start of the play, and by the end it is as stained and unsalvageable as Jude’s image of himself. I am almost certain the playing area started out white at the first performance and is now permanently soiled with a sickening rose tint to it. By focusing on Jude’s psychological torture from the start, van Hove doesn’t throw the audience for a narrative loop the way the novel did. But that also means we get way too much of what Jude as a young boy had to endure, which is shown in vivid detail on stage. The biggest mistake van Hove made for BAM is to keep the in Dutch dialogue. I’m sure it would have been more costly to cast a new set of American actors, and this current ensemble certainly feels like a cohesive unit, but because of the overlapping dialogue mixed with the supertitles above the stage, it was sometimes hard to figure out who was talking. Plus, having them speak in Dutch but talk about life in New York took me out of the verisimilitude, even with the nonstop video projections of Manhattan. They could have easily made the setting Amsterdam without losing any of the authenticity. As it is, only Mardo as the bitchy, spoiled painter even halfway resembles a New Yorker. I also could have done without the live string quartet that plays during some of the more tense moments of the evening. String Quartet No. 1: 10 Days of Antibiotics, perhaps? I still question Yanagihara’s intent giving us a story so extreme, but at least she didn’t name the main character Job (though Jude is close enough). Still, at least on stage, with van Hove’s visual flair, the four hours only felt like three. 

A Little Life (c) Julieta Cervantes

VIP: Ramsey Nasr. Jude is a marathon endurance test for any actor as he is rarely not on stage (he’s in the preshow as the audience enters and even parts of the intermission). And Nasr is up to the challenge. Using his boyish good looks to great advantage, especially in those painful flashbacks, Nasr lays himself bare (sometimes literally) to the audience, who is never not on his side, even when Jude is making questionable choices. We can’t talk about Nasr’s performance without mentioning the solid work by Hans Kesting who plays Jude’s many dance partners during the horrific moments of the play. Nasr’s performance is unforgettable.

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