The Lucky Ones, Cracked Open at The Connelly
Surviving adolescence, in retrospect, may be disturbingly similar to having been part of a cult. The cult of youth; an environment feral, fearless, ruthless in power distribution, and filled with a certain sort of magical thinking that by living hard enough, feeling fully enough, screaming into your pillow at night, you can alter gravity and never fall back into the crowd.
At some point during the first act of The Lucky Ones, a new musical by The Bengsons and Sarah Gancher (directed by Anne Kauffman, produced by Ars Nova, running at The Connelly through April 21st), this cult-like-ness registers in a flare of recognition followed by a shiver of fear for the onstage participants. We know, like the ever-watching Abigail (who is one half of the Bengsons, and reliving family history in real time – she is, in effect, staging it for our benefit and hers, more on that later), that none of this can end well. In the moment that I am dwelling on, a blazing bonfire is represented theatrically by the ensemble’s tightly choreographed construction of a tall precarious stack of orange school-chairs. Made up of a mix of dancer-singer types, the ensemble becomes a bunch of teenagers at a party, the first one that Abigail has attended. Abigail, simultaneously at the party and also watching from the outskirts, sings, “I want to be shining. I want to be perfect. I want to crack open. I want to be young before I die.” And she is. She watches the ensemble drink, flirt, and fling themselves closer and closer to the fire, moving in a strange hybrid physicality suggesting alien embodiment (the choreographer is Sonya Tayeh) coupled with crackling emotional resonance with and of the exact moment. They are shining. They are perfect. They are cracked wide open. So open that some may not recover.
In this moment too, the music, which is produced by the Bengsons with help from a three-person band and features lyrics that sometimes have a direct narrative purpose and other times are placed more like patchwork, functions precisely as it should – with drums crashing and guitars squalling, it propels the action headlong into the next interaction and song seamlessly, not pausing long enough to allow for audience applause (wisely) – it knows what’s about to happen, and it knows that there’s never enough time and that we’re always reaching back, trying to remember what it felt like to crack wide open for the first time.
This extended sequence is a gift, from Abigail & Shaun (the other half of the Bengsons, who has played an understated support role in both One Hundred Days as well as The Lucky Ones) to us. It’s not necessarily her intended purpose for making the piece – we learn later on that she’s trying to reconstruct her fragmented family for the benefit of her son, and by invoking these memories, by staging them even, she might be able to find a path to healing, if not redemption. (The redemption is not for her so much as for the monsters in her life, who we meet in Act I and then watch, helplessly, as they reveal their inner monster.) As she learns by the end of the evening though, maybe that healing and redemption is not…going to happen. At least not in the way she had hoped. So the musical, as a piece of art, functions as monument towards the gesture. And perhaps it’s better that way, as an attempt rather than a functional triumph. If you could just fix your entire family with one musical, we’d be awash in them. (Maybe we already are.)
This sense of being an attempted and possibly failed gesture may open the musical up to certain criticisms on a storytelling level. Dramaturgically, The Lucky Ones exists in a constant state of shift. The base built upon during that cult-of-youth Act I crumbles in Act II and disintegrates in Act III, like an abandoned childhood tree-fort slowly falling out of the tree. The choreography, vital to the expression of the youthful portions, disappears when the adults must hold the stage for extended periods of time. Even the music has a harder time existing inside the cracks of the actual reality, in which onstage characters perform verbatim (or near verbatim) interviews from actual members of Abigail’s surviving family. During one of these recitations though, the speaker shifts into song. The band strikes up and supports the voice, and others join in. It’s like a little shadow is filled in by sunlight just before the sun goes back behind a cloud. A brief heat. A recollection of the fury from before. Then it’s gone again, and we’re left with what fully lived-in reality feels like. One could argue with that shift towards the minimal – maybe there should be a more constant musical entrenchment. Maybe we shouldn’t be left alone for this long. Maybe we should have been better prepared for this.
But hey, we’re adults. And isn’t that what being an adult feels like at this point, having survived any number of life’s ongoing traumas, big and small? Are those not the questions we ask of ourselves, every day? I’m satisfied in letting The Lucky Ones simply evoke that sensation – of having survived, of having lived through something, of having been cracked open. And then the impossible task of weaving over that crack with life’s myriad experiences, all the while knowing you can never return fully enough to the moment of cracking to totally understand it. It was enough to have simply been there, with yourself, when it happened.