The Bengsons have a complicated relationship with the truth. In their two autobiographical shows to hit New York in the last six months, the husband and wife band have seemingly put the truth on stage. Hundred Days at New York Theater Workshop last year examined Abigail and Shaun’s fast-paced courtship and marriage. Now, The Lucky Ones, produced by Ars Nova, tells a darker tale from Abigail’s past. The couple composed both musicals, in collaboration with book writer Sarah Gancher, and they play themselves, or a version of themselves that we are meant to believe is actually them.
This is where it gets murky. By scripting former anguish and forcing themselves to relive the past for the length of an off-Broadway run, it turns the truth into something manufactured. Theatre is, by nature, false. Actors, playwrights, and directors are encouraged to be honest in their creations, but that’s not the same thing as being truthful. The former is the expectation that what we see onstage is believable in the context of a fictional world. The latter is the expectation that what we see onstage is pure fact.
The Bengsons acknowledge that some of the depicted details didn’t actually happen, but the conceit of both musicals is that, because Abigail and Shaun are so emotionally present, they might as well have. In The Lucky Ones, Abigail returns nightly–sometimes twice a day, when there’s a matinee–to a brutal event from her youth involving her cousin, Kai. As the events transpire, it’s as if she’s there again, experiencing it. It’s either a brilliant performance or the memory is still so alive in her that the musical is functioning as therapy. It’s hard to know which, but it leans towards artifice.
Abigail and Shaun play themselves, but everyone else is an actor, some of them pretty recognizable in New York theatre. There’s Adina Verson and Tom Nelis from Indecent. There’s Myra Lucretia Taylor from School Girls and Familiar. Placing actors next to “real” people highlights that this experience, the act of watching The Lucky Ones, is a facsimile of reality. This “true story” isn’t true, which isn’t a big deal, except the Bengsons begin the show establishing a framework that claims it is. They engage with the actors around them as if they are the actual people they’re playing. The relationships feel like they’ve existed years before the rehearsal room which, usually, is something to be celebrated, but here it just made me wonder where the line between reality and fiction is drawn. If we know that’s not really Abigail’s mother or her father or her sister, why is she so insistent that it is?
In a lot of ways, this blur between life and art is unique to the Bengsons. It’s not uncommon for playwrights to thinly veil aspects of their lives in their plays (Tennessee Williams is the most obvious example), but to place themselves in the thick of the action, to transport the writer’s physical body to a temporal space long passed, is something only the Bengsons do. Sarah Ruhl recently wrote a play about her mother’s family, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, in which several members of her family appeared in a lightly-fictionalized environment. Crucially, Ruhl, herself, did not appear.
I thought a lot about that play while watching this one. Ruhl said that she wrote For Peter Pan as a gift to her mother and because playwrights rarely write plays about their family that the family would actually want to see. She was referring to the common family drama trope of explosive hidden secrets that tear families asunder, and she was asking why a playwright can’t just be nice to her family. The short answer is that being nice isn’t dramatic.
The Lucky Ones begins in this vein of nicety: Abigail refers to her family as “magic.” But, then, it quickly spirals down into something dark and fractured. The fault lines are numerous and the interfamilial drift is unexpected. The second half of the musical concerns a series of interviews Abigail and Shaun conducted, Tectonic Theater or Civilians-style, with the members of her family. It all leads to the revelation that the whole reason The Lucky Ones exists is because Abigail is trying to paste her family back together. She is hoping that when they see the show, they will move past years of heartbreak and make up with the people who have wronged, neglected, and ignored them. It’s a shockingly selfish moment and is presented without any awareness that Abigail is suddenly minimizing several monumental family traumas. She is the only member of the family who still speaks to everyone, and she hopes that maybe one day they’ll all be in the same room again in order for her son to know the happy family she once had.
When I saw The Lucky Ones, a group of Abigail’s family was sitting behind me. They were profoundly affected by the work on stage, crying, laughing, cheering…until this moment happened. One of them (I didn’t turn around to identify her), verbally exclaimed, mid-scene, that she would never forgive Abigail’s father for the things he did to his ex-wife, and that she would continue to ignore him if he happened to be in the same room. This was reality. This was the truth, and it wasn’t on the stage. It was in the seat behind me.
The Lucky Ones runs to April 28, 2018. More production info can be found here.