Adam Bock tells a true “Life” story

One of Portland Center Stage's favorite playwrights delivers a small, surprising, perspective-shifting play in the Ellen Bye Studio.

“The truth is so hard to find, and it’s almost impossible to hold onto,” says Nate, the protagonist of A Life, a West Coast premiere at Portland Center Stage. The irony, of course, is that he is absolutely right, and thus has found the truth.

Nate (Nat DeWolf) has a great deal of world-weary wisdom to share with the audience – and share he does – as he speaks, alone in his tiny New York City apartment (on a “long long visit to this lonely place”), to those of us gathered in the Ellen Bye Studio at the Armory. It’s unclear to whom he thinks he’s speaking, but I’m not sure that matters.

What does matter is that Nate has a lot to say. “I’m not always great with quiet,” he tells us at one point. And we laugh, because we already know that. We know Nate by this point, after all. We’re friends. He shares his longings, his loneliness, his quirks and worries.

How should we couch this? Nate Martin (played by Nat DeWolf) has a mind as cluttered as his apartment, in Adam Bock’s “A Life.”
Photo: Patrick Weishampel/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

DeWolf and playwright Adam Bock give Nate an everyman sensibility. This is a guy you know – maybe even a friend. And his worries of not being able to find anyone to love are real and raw. DeWolf  plays Nate as a bit nervous and jittery, an effect that works once you get past thinking it might be the actor flubbing instead of the character (trust me: it’s the character). This effect is heightened by the cluttered apartment couch and table at the center of the Ellen Bye stage.

DeWolf makes you care deeply for Nate. He’s funny but sad, lonely but picky in love, waiting for his ex’s call but trying to pretend he doesn’t care. He’s so unsure of what he wants that he isn’t even sure what he’s unsure of. We want to see him find someone. We want him to be happy.

Enter Curtis, his best friend, played beautifully by Gary Norman. DeWolf and Norman act together with an ease that makes you believe they’ve been lifelong friends. They have a rapport and quick wit that feels comfortable. Seeing Curtis and Nate interact – hilariously conversing about all of the important things in Nate’s life while ogling boys (we never see) at the park – gives us a greater appreciation for this man we have already grown to care for. Because now we also see him through the eyes of his closest friend.

Best friends: Nat DeWolf as Nate Martin and Gary Norman as Curtis, reflecting on “A Life.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

The scenic design by Tony Cisek is simple yet stunning. There is a particularly incredible window to the outside on the back wall that you could easily believe was an actual window to the outside if you hadn’t just walked two stories underground to the theater. The lighting design by Diane Ferry Williams is equally amazing – including that window light, the dimly lit apartment, and harsher lights of harsher settings that I don’t want to give away.

The sound design by Casi Pacilio with Scott Thorson does more than you would expect a play this quiet and talky to do: There is a lengthy scene where lights and background/off-stage sounds literally do everything. And this is one of the strongest and most emotional scenes of the whole play (and that’s not to take anything away from the actors).

There are strong performances from Cycerli Ash and Dana Green, each in several small roles, though it’s hard to say too much about them – or about some of DeWolf’s and, especially Norman’s, work – without saying too much.

This play is small. Bock makes an interesting choice to have so much of Nate’s life play out for the audience only in the words he speaks to us, and a few small moments of “action.” Telling the story a little differently is kind of the point here, though. As Bock described it in an interview with PCS: “That’s what we do as playwrights. We say something different and then suddenly people can’t see the world the old way they used to anymore.”

And there, again, is a truth: After seeing “A Life” and getting a glimpse of Nate’s life, you might see the world a little differently, or have a newfound appreciation for your own life or someone or something in it.

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