People, Places and Things: When 12-Step Is Just the Beginning

Denise Gough and Barbara Martens
One of the most popular genres of autobiography is the addict-recovery memoir. The format usually follows a tight script: the promising beginning, the descent into drugs and misery, the harrowing "rock bottom" moment, and then the recovery process by which the addict finds strength from God. The result is usually uplifting and tidy. How engaging these books are depends on the narrator (and editor). My personal favorite addict-recovery memoir is Darryl Strawberry's Straw. Strawberry sounds like a very typical jock who muses about how much his batting average would have been had he "juiced" on steroids and described his ex-wife as "drama, drama, drama." The authenticity and lack of pretension is appealing. I also like Mike Tyson's memoir if only for the honest epilogue in which he admits that he hasn't recovered, is still an addict and working through issues.

Duncan MacMillan's play People, Places and Things (now playing at St. Ann's Warehouse through December 3) has an addict who is the 12-step nightmare. To say that Emma (the incredible Denise Gough) is a hot mess is an understatement -- in the opening scene she is high out of her mind and slurring her way through The Seagull. She blacks out at a club (the loud, relentless electronica music played during the play starts to feel like a pounding nightmare). We next see her at a rehab center -- she snorts a line of coke at the counter. Once in rehab she rejects every part of the "process," as the center calls the 12-step program. She's rude, cynical, dismissive of the group therapy sessions and we're never sure whether she's putting on a performance. She is an actress after all and her name and stories switch constantly. The direction emphasizes how schizophrenic Emma is as a narrator of her own story by having doubles often joining the stage with her as her identity becomes more fractured and confused.

Nathaniel Martello-White
Gough is so compelling that we almost can overlook that the middle of the play gets bogged down by some rather tedious rehab/recovery "process" scenes. We meet a bunch of addicts, but their stories are rather bland and formulaic, and Gough is so overpowering that I got bored whenever she wasn't the focus of attention. Of course Emma meets an efficient, skeptical doctor and a more sympathetic group therapist (both played by Barbara Martens) and of course she ends up befriending a fellow addict Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White). And just as predictably Emma eventually loses that armor of cynicism.

Denise Gough
However the meat of the play is in the final scene. Emma has returned home to her parents' place. At the rehab center she and other addicts have to "practice" how they're going to make amends with loved ones once they're out in the real world. As Emma sits in her childhood bedroom and "performs" the speech she'd practiced in rehab to her real-world parents (Barbara Martens again as the mother, and Kevin McMonagle as the father), their cold reactions are both heartbreaking and understandable. They've suffered through a lifetime of Emma's addiction and they're burned out. And in one final scene, there's still ambiguity about how much of Emma's recovery is real and how much of it is a performance.

So if you take out Denise Gough's fearless, terrifying performance and and Jeremy Herrin's clever direction (the white-tiled set represents the impersonal rehab clinic but also the blank spaces that dot an addict's mind) does MacMillan's play have lasting power? Well ... uh, I don't know, but my guess is no. It's an intense, harrowing theatrical experience and one I'm glad I experienced but besides the structural flaw I mentioned earlier I also think the play suffers one fatal defect: Emma is compelling and watchable, but she's not someone I cared about. I'm not saying that all protagonists have to likable, but I have to be invested in their journey. Still, Denise Gough gives an incredible performance and the play is definitely worth seeing. She will be back on Broadway in the spring in the highly anticipated Angels in America.

Ben Platt, Will Roland, and Mike Faist
In other news, I saw Dear Evan Hansen for the second time last night. Ben Platt is leaving the show on November 19, and I had to see his performance again. He's vocally rawer than he was in the spring, but the impact of his performance hasn't waned. All of the original cast was on last night except for Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi). Garrett Long played Evan's struggling mother and while she was very good she didn't have the tenderness and warmth of Jones. The musical was even more of a tear-duct activator on second viewing -- there were so many details that I didn't catch the first time I saw the show. For instance, I didn't catch this heartbreaking moment in "For Forever." Evan talks about falling out of the tree:
And I suddenly feel the branch give way
I'm on the ground
My arm goes numb
I look around
You realize that Evan is actually talking about his own suicide attempt and it's chilling. The story has some holes in it and the ending is a bit muddled but it's playing to sell-out crowds night after night because it has likable characters that we want to follow. Their loneliness and pain resonates with people. Seriously, if you haven't seen this musical yet, go! In other news during intermission I ran into Ben Platt's alternate, Michael Lee Brown. I've heard he's also amazing and seeing him as Evan is also on my never-ending to-do list.


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