Frank Wood is one of those actors who projects a sense of groundedness even when his character is behaving in a completely unhinged way. He’s perfectly cast as the tragicomic father figure in Emily Feldman’s promising but flawed drama “The Best We Could,” which opened Wednesday at Manhattan Theatre Club. Here, he offers a study in blinkered boomer narcissism that is stunning to behold — in one scene insisting that he could never yell at someone and gradually beginning to raise his volume so that by the end of his speech he’s not only shouting but defending that act as just the outgrowth of his passionate feelings.
While Feldman studs her 90-minute intermissionless play with such telling moments, too often she also undercuts their effect with over-explanatory follow-up comments or meta-theatrical flourishes. Stealing a page from “Our Town,” she gives us a narrator dubbed in the Playbill as Maps who sets up scenes, voices stage direction and prompts characters to act. (Maureen Sebastian is marvelous in the role, also picking up multi-accented bit parts along the way.)
The play comes with a parenthetical subtitle — “(a family tragedy)” — but for much of the running time we get a mostly comedic road trip with Wood’s Lou, a research scientist who’s suddenly out of work for reasons that become clear over time, and his 36-year-old daughter, similarly underemployed and recently split from her longtime girlfriend. Aya Cash (“The Boys”) slides into the role like a comfy pair of jeans, turning girlish around her dad (her voice jumps half an octave to say “Hi, daddy!”) and visibly bristling in the presence of her hectoring mom (Constance Shulman, “Orange Is the New Black”).
Father and daughter are both adrift, avatars of alienation from a modern society that can’t seem to find a place for them in ways that reflect each of their generations. But the humorous squabbles over the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore, and the visit to Lou’s successful college buddy (Brian D. Coats) who might be able to help Lou land his next job, are mostly a wind-up to Feldman’s more serious intentions in the final third of the play.
What happens if we, and our loved ones, are the problem we’ve been railing against all these years? It’s a bait-and-switch, and the stark shift in tone comes mid-scene in an awkward way that even a gifted director like Daniel Aukin can’t manage to smooth over. From that moment, we are rushed headlong through a denouement that feels as rushed as the set-up was leisurely. Feldman’s meta-structure also blunts some of the play’s most effective passages, particularly a stark, heart-tugging ending that’s also an apt callback to an earlier scene in the play. Instead of closing on that moment, we have to wait a beat for Maps to step forward and call for the lights to be turned out.
Still, there’s a lot to admire here — particularly the splendid performances by Wood and the rest of the cast. And Feldman, who has talent to burn, may soon learn how to trust her own voice.