BWW Review: The Life and Death of Addiction in Pendleton King's COCAINE
When someone mentions the word "addiction," drugs is what automatically comes to mind - an unhealthy relationship with a substance that makes life more tolerable, when circumstances deem it otherwise. But an addiction can mean anything - one can be addicted to a person and the life they've built together, or perhaps addicted to the idea of how life ought to be. If you think about it, being so attached to something is like prolonging an unconscious sense of hope for one's life, even if it doesn't seem too great at present. But how do you determine the point where loss overcomes love - when even the presence of another person (or an idea of what could be) cannot seem to make things better? When a couple is strong enough to end their addiction to cocaine, but must still struggle to eradicate themselves from their own poverty-stricken lives? When the addiction has passed, what has the power to make our lives truly worth while?
Over the course of about forty-five minutes, Pendleton King's play Cocaine takes audiences back to 1916, when such a thing as addiction was simply "pushed under the rug." But this play is about so much more than a dependence on drugs. It questions what makes life worth living when even a young couple's addiction to the vision of a better life becomes too brittle to bear any longer. Drugs, prostitution and poverty plague a man and woman who find life-bearing comfort in the love they share in a Little Room they can't afford, secluded from the world they have little success of becoming a part of.
Under the brilliant direction of Judith Feingold, with an exclusive three-performance run at the NuBox Theater (at the John DeSotelle Studio) in Hell's Kitchen, Cocaine is such an unexpectedly powerful piece that brings out the reality of addiction amidst the love of two young people, overcome by the life they are forced to live. As part of the John DeSotelle Studio Series and exposing the beauty of Pendleton's neglected work, Cocaine is as succinct as it is a beautiful representation of what love looks like in the face of struggle. With seemingly little reason to go on, each day seen as more of a desperate means of holding on than truly living, Nora and Joe keep their love for each other afloat while their ability to survive crumbles around them. Regardless of the show's brevity, it perfectly captures the existential struggle of two people whose love is adverse to the absurd harshness of the world outside.
As Feingold states, "Although Cocaine and its playwright...are scarcely bywords in American drama, I believe that their neglect is undeserved. I find the deceptively unadorned play to be as deep, as rich, as nuanced and as full of human striving as many of the more widely acclaimed works which follow in later decades."
And unadorned it is, requiring little than a room in full view (and sound) of the passing train and a simple stove; indeed, it is really all that is required to decide whether, at its fundamental core, life is worth living. As Nora prostitutes herself to no avail and Joe sits in a hot room, night after night, trying to rid himself of his addiction, the two come together one night and discuss what it is, exactly, that keeps them alive.
What surprised me though, is how relative their situation is to anyone who has ever struggled - not necessarily with drug addiction, but who perhaps looked for reason and purpose where none could be found, or who never questioned or took advantage of any trace of love that came their way. They embraced it, added it to their lack of being to create something that could be considered a life. That is what makes this play so beautiful, and such a wonderful piece of theater to expose to the world. Addiction can be love of a life that is no more, and actual love can dissipate in a world that doesn't need it - yet Pendleton perfectly balances the two, leaving the characters of Nora and Joe the choice to keep suffering - to "live," as Nora puts it, solely because of the fear of dying, or find something more to hold onto.
King captures the solitary existence of these two lovers, who have already been convinced of how futile the act of surviving has become. Feingold lends her creativity to how the audience is introduced to these characters, using the first few moments of the play to allow for a wordless whirlwind of violent and sensual actions. Man and woman (nameless at that point) embrace, dance, falter and fail - a visual portrayal of two people who have experienced much and must watch themselves fall as the scene is given context and continues.
Maria Swisher and Andre Vauthey do an amazing job of transforming a dark, bleak set into a room with a pulse - a breathing thing that seems to exhaust the life from them both, trapping these characters with the futility of trying to make things better. The existential crisis they face is equally as strong outside of those walls as it is within; even if things were better, the audience isn't sure that Nora and Joe would even want to move on. I absolutely love how both actors capture the stark, empty quality of their lives and effectively communicate how, exactly, this feels to the audience; this is to the point where suicide actually seems rational. Such a strong, poignant portrayal of what the playwright must have originally wanted - sad but also liberating, to have such strong-willed people who know that survival is not anywhere close to living.
Cocaine began performances at The NuBox (at the John DeSotelle Studio, located at 754 9th Avenue, 4th floor) on November 22nd and will continue thru November 24th. The remaining performance will be on the 24th at 6:00 pm. Tickets are $18 online/$20 at the door, and can be purchased in person, by visiting www.DeSotelleStudio.com or by calling (212) 581-0188. Please note that the venue is a walk up, and there is not an elevator on site. A selection of beverages will be provided to purchase before the performance.
Enjoy the show!