‘Ode to Joy’, at the Black Box Performing Arts Center, depicts the lives of drug addicts with sinister humor

PICTURES BY JEREMY NILES

Ilana Schimmel, left, and Danielle MacMath co-star in ‘Ode to Joy.’

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

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

Bill, however, has the opposite reaction, immediately offering to buy one. It’s good news for Adele, who admits she’s just “passing on” as a painter. “I have a tiny coterie of crazy fans who love my job but maybe say that to keep me from rushing off a building,” she says.

Englewood’s Black Box Performing Arts Center has featured many thought-provoking works by contemporary playwrights and continues that tradition with three-time Tony-nominated “Ode to Joy,” “An American in Paris,” “Light in the Piazza,” Prelude to a kiss”) Lucas. “Ode to Joy” debuted Off-Broadway in 2014 and has 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, ironic humor in Lucas’ tale of Adele (played by Danielle MacMath) and the two great loves of her life: Mala (Ilana Schimmel), whom she met in 1998 and broke up with her on January 1, 2000 (once they walked through Y2K together without incident); and Bill (Sean Mannix), who comes into her life later and stays longer.

(Although Adele’s artwork is never seen, Schimmel, who also serves as the show’s production designer, adds to the atmosphere by decorating the scene with colorful, chaotic squiggles, like something Jackson Pollock might suggest.)

Mala and Bill don’t just have different reactions to Adele’s painting. They are completely different from each other. The only thing they seem to share, in fact, is the fact that they fall in love with Adele almost immediately.

Mala is a calm and serene setting. Bill, a Kierkegaard-reading doctor, lives life at the same feverish pace as Adele; these two characters don’t really talk to each other, they shout at each other. And, like Adele, he’s a heavy drinker and drug addict. (Mala abstains.)

“Ode to Joy” portrays the misery of life for an addict (even a high-level one, like Adele or Bill) quite vividly. Adele and Bill’s first night together, in Bill’s loft, goes so horribly wrong that one wonders how the relationship survived – and MacMath and Mannix deserve credit for overcoming the physical demands of a love scene between two characters so drunk they can barely get up.

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

Along the way, Lucas lashes out at art critics who don’t understand Adele’s groundbreaking works (and, by extension, difficult art in general). “The truth is hard,” Adele says of her art, but it’s a sentiment that applies to her personal life as well. The addiction is something “hard” that she has to endure to live a life that she considers authentic.

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

Adele also says “It’s the story of how the pain goes”, at the start of the play. But “Ode to Joy” seems to me rather to be the story of pain, period.

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

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