In the year 2016, Peter Mark Kendall dropped his phone. The terrifying, heartbreaking final image of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Harvest is etched in my memory. In the play’s final tableau, the protagonist Josh, played by Kendall, drops his phone on the ground. The image indicates not only that Josh may not break away from his life as a missionary, but more than that, speaks to a deep uncertainty at the heart of all these characters. Each of them are a phone’s drop away from turning their lives this way, or that – and changing everything.
Kendall’s strength in this scene, and across all his recent work in New York theatre, is his sincerity. Not a performative truth, but rather what feels like effortless naturalism. Though handsome, his broad, slightly gangly frame gives him the physical appearance of a “real person”, while his nerdy vibe offsets any baked-in masculinity. In all his work, he excels at this straightforward (but not simple) task of just seeming like a real person. That was evident in Six Degrees of Separation, where he played a small but pivotal role on Broadway in 2017 and in Blue Ridge at the Atlantic last winter. The former character was gentle and easily broken, the latter hard-edged and often frightening.
In Chad Beckim’s new play Nothing Gold Can Stay, presented by Partial Comfort at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, Kendall is giving a bit of both. Jamie is a “gentle giant” type, imposing, but good-hearted. Like most of the Maine-set play’s inhabitants, he is trapped in a stifling small town life. In his work as an EMT, he is also grappling daily with the opioid crisis consuming the state.
Jamie is not the protagonist of Nothing Gold Can Stay – though it’s not clear who is. The story chiefly concerns his sister, Jess (Talene Monahan), who falls into addiction after her boyfriend, Clay (Micheál Richardson), leaves for college. At some times, it is Clay’s story as he fights to extricate his girlfriend from drugs without losing his education. At other times, the play belongs to Clay’s mother, Susan (Mary Bacon), who has taken Jess in but also struggles to help her.
If the story doesn’t clearly have an owner, it is still decently told. Beckim gives the play a rapid pace. Jumping through time allows him to cover the repetitive cycles of drug use – addiction, recovery, relapse, addiction, recovery, relapse – over and over in only 90 minutes. These cycles may not be conducive to drama, but they are the reality. It is right that Beckim doesn’t try to gussy them up for theatre.
Without a strong driving structure, though, the play is in desperate need of great characters. Sadly, everyone on stage is in their own play. In a particularly odd move, Beckim gives Susan an assortment of one-liners, as when she announces her gravely sick son “smells like a garbage bag full of dicks.” Bacon only pushes the comedy harder at the play’s close, but as her jokes grow darker, they just feel awkwardly shoehorned into a mostly sincere text.
Only Kendall finds the tone where the play probably should sit: a quiet, humane study of people just barely staying afloat, in times they don’t comprehend. In a smart running gag, gentle Jamie has a frightening dog that barks constantly. As Jamie speaks of the dog, you feel his confusion: he loves the creature, but he also despises it. He is sincerely lost on the topic, and we’re right there with him. It’s real, it’s achingly sincere, and it passes too quickly.