If the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem, then the world of entertainment, if not yet society itself, is more than ready to start getting better. These days, you don’t have to have actually been to an AA meeting to be familiar with the process, jargon and rhythms of addiction treatment — you just need to read popular fiction or watch any single prestige drama on TV.
For those who like their withdrawal hallucinations and group therapy theatrically inclined, there’s “People, Places & Things” at Studio Theatre, now until December 11. The show, written by Duncan Macmillan and helmed by Studio artistic director David Muse, is mostly a relatively straightforward story of substance abuse and potential improvement (you know all the beats already: rock bottom, messy intake, resistance, aggression, a breakthrough or relapse or two, ambiguous ending). But that “theatrically inclined” is meant doubly: The added wrinkle here is that our main character, the addict in question, is herself an actress. Booze and pills and powders are both a crutch she uses to distance herself from her unhappiness (i.e. another character to put on) and the only way she feels real, the ultimate stripping of the existential mask when all the world’s a shitty stage that you can’t understand.
And, of course, she’s a helluva liar.
As Emma (or is it Nina?), Kristen Bush is put through the tears-and-vomit ringer, but she accomplishes two of the more difficult actor feats: She feels genuinely in-the-moment, surprised by and reacting in real time to the disaster she’s made of her life, and she gives her character a clear and specific personality while also standing in well for the audience. Her intelligent, sharp edges become our own, bristling at the “higher power” pablum of The Book and rejecting the idea that she has a disease while still yearning for a magic make-it-all-OK button.
The script, it must be said, has a troublesome problem of hurry up and wait pacing. The best scene — the show’s centerpiece — is an extended group sesh time lapse where the thousand barbs of addiction, its insidious weapons and gruesome toll, grow and multiply like a rosebush that wasn’t a problem until it was too late. Every performer, not least our lead, benefits from the chance to stretch their legs in it.
But other moments fly by far too quickly to feel real. In the opening, Emma is drunk onstage in a production of “The Seagull” (playing, naturally, another actress dealing with a great deal of trouble). Given time, this scene could have been both funny and scary. As is, it’s only funny. And the entire second act lacks patience. By the time the play has figured out where it wants to go, it simply has to get there right away.
Recovery is work, and work is often boring. “People, Places & Things” — a title that grimly refers to possible triggers — wants to focus on the interesting parts. But at least it does have plenty of those.
The two-years-sober family member I brought with me to see it thoroughly enjoyed it. We all know someone in recovery; this show knows its someone inside and out.
“People, Places & Things” runs at Studio Theatre through December 11. Tickets start at $65.