Clearly, I don’t know how things work. I’m just wandering in the dark here,” says a worried mother in the final moments of James Lapine’s rich, prismatic new play “The Moment When,” making its world premiere in a cruelly brief run at Playwrights Horizons. This extraordinarily ambitious piece of writing dares to take the audience to similarly murky places, without bothering to put up the usual signposts or even making the expected dramatic explanations. It begins as a brittle romantic comedy about young New Yorkers apparently negotiating a one-night stand, but ends some two and a half-hours later wandering into far darker territory, even gently tiptoeing toward tragedy.
In its quiet way, “The Moment When” makes major demands on both actors and audiences. Under Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s sensitive direction, the excellent cast is more than up to the task, but not many audiences will have the chance to rise to its challenges, since “The Moment When” closed March 26, less than a week after its delayed opening. The play and the production deserve a longer life.The slightly glib first scene is set at a literary cocktail party in 1984, where we meet the main characters. Steven (Mark Ruffalo), a rumpled young artist who makes a living designing book jackets, is putting the moves on Alice (Illeana Douglas), who’s instantly — and rather stridently — put off by his aggressiveness, despite his certainly endearing boyishness. Almost visibly cynical, Alice is ready to bolt when the party’s hostess Paula (Phyllis Newman), her powerful literary agent, descends on the sniping couple with her new assistant Dana (Arija Bareikis) in tow.
After rudely receiving Dana’s gushing praise for her novel, Alice leaves the field, and Steven instantly transfers his attentions to the naive Dana, who soon finds herself back at his loft. Now it’s her turn to rebuff his advances, but Steven is so insistently apologetic that Dana suddenly changes her mind, and slowly begins to undress — to pose for a painting, it seems.
During this scene the play makes its first unsettling detour. As the lights dim onstage and Dana and Steven freeze in place, a young boy (Kieran Culkin) suddenly lopes down the center aisle and addresses the audience, casually confiding details of his first sexual experiences, for which he seems to be far too young. Who is he?
We learn soon enough who he is, for in the next scene, which takes place two years later than the last, Steven is at the hospital, greeting his newborn son Charlie with the bumbling mix of nervousness, joy and fear endemic to new fatherhood (expertly played by the inimitable Ruffalo, best known for his perf in Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth”).
The scene contains a broad gag — a nurse bustles on and snatches the baby from the cooing Steven’s hands; she’d given him the wrong one. It’s a farcically funny moment, but not just an extraneous laugh-getter. “The Moment When” is about life’s odd twists and turns, the roads taken and not taken, connections lost and found. Even something as primal as fatherhood, Lapine suggests, is mysteriously susceptible to influences outside our own — it owes an awful lot to chance and timing and circumstance.
Had Alice not rebuffed Steven at Paula’s party, for instance, Dana and Steven would not now be married with child — and Steven would not be cheating on Dana with his assistant. Alice, for that matter, whom Steven runs into at the hospital, might not be traveling through the dark waters she finds herself in.
“The Moment When” is not a tidy play, squarely sticking to meticulously drawn main characters, a reasonable time frame and a single theme — the working mother dilemma, the straying husband drama, the rearing of a wayward child, or the struggle to keep a career on track in the face of life’s complications. It briefly but perceptively contemplates all of these and more in its two acts, traveling through more than 15 years. Like life, it has ragged edges, rough spots, and is stuffed to bursting with surprises and setbacks. It’s peopled by characters who have stories too complicated to fit neatly into its two acts, and who make major transitions between scenes. Our sympathy has to fill in the gaps — the way it must for friends and colleagues seen only at rare intervals.
The title refers to those turning points that pass by us unnoticed, the moment when a marriage is destroyed, when a career is suddenly derailed, when a child strays beyond the influence of a distracted parent’s love, when innocence is lost. Those moments are never precisely defined, and Lapine’s play shows us some while gliding by others.
Alice, a wreck in one scene, reemerges with a bestselling novel and a power suit a half-hour later. Dana, last seen on a fast track at Paula’s agency, announces she’s moving to Chicago to write children’s books, in a scene during which we also learn that she and Steven have long since divorced. Steven spirals slowly into a disappointed life before suddenly joining up with Alice in the end.
In structure, scope and style “The Moment When” may remind you of two British imports from last season, “Closer” and “Amy’s View,” but there is nothing derivative about its immense wit and insight and sensitivity.
The play has its awkward spots, its coarse or clunky lines, but the talents of the cast override them. Bareikis effortlessly makes convincing her character’s transformation from giggly post-collegiate girl in the first scene to harried but loving mom minutes later. Ruffalo is that rare actor who never seems to have even a finger placed for audience effect — he’s entirely inside the play, living it with all the naturalness of a real human being. Douglas pushes the neurotic mannerisms a trifle hard in her first scene (and her character could use some more stage time), but warms touchingly in the last act, while Newman is sharp and funny in the most strictly comic role.
Culkin is utterly natural and simply terrific in the role of Dana and Steven’s son Wilson. Significantly, the character never interacts with his parents onstage until the play’s final moment. Lapine’s point: While parents are moving restlessly through their lives, attending to their kids as best they can amid various crises and conflicts, a child’s life is always on its own strange trajectory toward self-fulfillment or self-destruction.
Lapine may never have written anything finer than this play’s final monologue , delivered in a heart-rending low key by Culkin, about the mysterious impulses that can unite or alienate us, driving a child to do both “something so ugly and something so beautiful in a few hours’ time.” The play’s final image is one of somber hope: a troubled young boy finally turning to face his parents, looking for something more than comfort — the moment when a life can turn permanently toward light or toward darkness.