‘Ode to Joy,’ at Black Box Performing Arts Center, depicts addicts’ lives with grim humor

Ode to Joy Craig Lucas review

PHOTOS BY JEREMY NILES

Ilana Schimmel, left, and Danielle MacMath co-star in “Ode to Joy.”

When Mala sees Adele’s painting for the first time in Craig Lucas’ “Ode to Joy,” she finds them disturbing.

“Did someone lock you in the trunk of a car on acid when you were 5, or something?” she asks.

Bill, though, has the opposite reaction, immediately offering to buy one. This is good news for Adele, who admits she is just “eking by” as a painter. “I have a minuscule coterie of insane fans who love my work but who might just be saying that to keep me from hurling myself off a building,” she says.

The Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood has presented many challenging works by contemporary playwrights, and continues that tradition with “Ode to Joy,” by the three-time Tony-nominated (“An American in Paris,” “Light in the Piazza,” “Prelude to a Kiss”) Lucas. “Ode to Joy” debuted Off-Broadway in 2014 and is making its New Jersey premiere here, directed by Matt Okin, with Michael Gardiner as assistant director.

Sean Mannix in “Ode to Joy.”

As the quotes above suggest, there is plenty of dark, wry humor in Lucas’ tale of Adele (played by Danielle MacMath) and the two great loves of her life: Mala (Ilana Schimmel), whom she meets in 1998 and who breaks up with her on Jan. 1, 2000 (once they make it through Y2K together uneventfully); and Bill (Sean Mannix), who comes into her life later and stays longer.

(Though Adele’s artwork is never seen, Schimmel, who doubles as the show’s production designer, adds to the atmosphere by decorating the stage with colorful, chaotic scrawls, like something Jackson Pollock might come up with.)

Mala and Bill don’t just have different reactions to Adele’s painting. They’re utterly unlike each other. The only thing they seem to share, in fact, is the fact that they fall for Adele almost immediately.

Mala is a calm and collected executive. Bill, a Kierkegaard-reading doctor, lives life at the same fevered pitch as Adele; these two characters don’t really talk to each other, they yell at each other. And, like Adele, he’s a heavy drinker and drug taker. (Mala abstains.)

“Ode to Joy” depicts the squalor of the life of an addict (even a high-functioning one, like Adele or Bill) quite vividly. Adele and Bill’s first night together, in Bill’s loft, goes so horrifyingly wrong one wonders how the relationship survived it — and MacMath and Mannix deserve credit for nailing the physical demands of a love scene between two characters who are so drunk they can hardly stand up.

“Ode to Joy” is not just about addiction. It is also about recovery, but I think Lucas is less successful in this respect. We do eventually see the recovered Adele, making amends with Bill and Mala. But how she got to that point remains a bit of a mystery.

Along the way, Lucas takes some swipes at art critics who don’t “get” Adele’s groundbreaking artwork (and, by extension, difficult art in general). “Truth is hard,” Adele says about her art, but it’s a sentiment that applies to her personal life as well. Addiction is something “hard” she has to endure to live a life she sees as genuine.

(“Truth is hard” could also be used as a motto for “Ode to Joy” itself).

Adele also says “This is the story of how the pain goes away,” at the start of the play. But “Ode to Joy” seems to me to be more like the story of the pain, period.

The Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood will present “Ode to Joy” through Feb. 27; visit blackboxpac.com.

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