Kristine Thatcher's play Among
Friends has a prestigious development history. Commissioned by
One would be disappointed.
The sheer awfulness of this play is not entirely Thatcher's responsibility, as many elements of the production are mediocre or worse, but her script does not survive the mauling that Ryan Repertory has committed against it.
Among Friends is about friendships between men, or "male bonding", according to the publicity material. The friends in question are Dan (Ryan Rep Artistic Director John Sannuto), Matt (Literary Manager Tony Marinelli), and Will (Brian Armstrong). They are typical American men, or, rather, stereotypical American men: they spend a good deal of the play swilling beer, playing poker, and watching football on TV.
The first of the six scenes focuses on a poker game, and the first suggestion of conflict beyond the conflict inherent in game-playing does not appear until a full fifteen minutes in, when the ethics of Dan's development of some pristine lakeside property is first challenged. Later in the scene, rich Dan cheats poor appliance-salesman Matt of $20 in chips and Will--the brother of Dan's wife--witnesses this. He doesn't tell Dan or Matt, and the rest of the action is intended to teach the necessity of both trust and communication in friendships.
Mention is made of the three men’s wives and families, but they are fleshed out even more thinly than the trio of men. When all you know about a woman is that she's forty-three, pregnant, and named Ursula - or that she's an accountant named Mary who makes great nachos - it's hard to care about them.
Dan's character makes no sense: he cheats when the legal and financial stakes are low, but while risking his friendship. Will is jealous of Dan, and Matt is a faithful, trusting, hopeless stooge, caught between the other two.
The dialogue consists of unfunny jokes (strangled baby, anyone?) and leaden emotional-confession moments that sound more appropriate for soap opera than theater. "Did you think that nobody would find out what you’ve done?" one man sneers at another, while one says "I will do anything to win your trust again." The ultimate clunker, however, is "It’s only now dawning on me that the bounds of our friendship, which I thought so deep, are actually quite shallow."
In an eleventh-hour revelation that is neither shocking nor revelatory, one character claims that his discovery that American servicemen in post-bomb Hiroshima bought child prostitutes "for the price of a Hershey bar" is "profound." (He actually says "profound" twice in that line.)
There is no subtext: characters explain their every psychological habit. "I may be arguing on behalf of forgiveness," Matt says, "but I'm not stupid." The men of Among Friends claim not to understand women, as in "I don’t understand the ways of women." Either the sons of Adam are much more simple-minded creatures than the daughters of Eve, or Thatcher just writes oversimplified characters.
The set, designed by Barbara Parisi and Sannuto, is both ugly and confusing. With creativity, it is possible to construct a cheap yet effective and engaging set, even for an off-off Broadway company. Parisi and Sannuto have not achieved that: their set consists of a space crowded with furniture representing a den, a living room, and a rec room in three houses--one for each of the protagonists. Minute changes in the arrangement of the furniture between scenes do not add up to a clear sense that the location is different. All three houses apparently have a gilded sculpture of an Asian dancer on the floor in the hallway. There is no connection between this choice and Thatcher's characterization of any of the three homeowners. The set dressings are made of a variety of intricately patterned fabrics, and the patterns clash hideously.
The direction, by Parisi, is strangely presentational for a play that strives for kitchen-sink realism. Actors stare out over the audience during conversations, and one crosses his arms stiffly to emphasize that he is angry. All the performances are wooden. One actor’s crying was obviously fake, and another was prone to audible sighs. One actor’s voice was a constant monotone, with the exception of two scenes, one of which consisted of him shouting at the TV during a football game.
Ryan Repertory must be commended for their broad and courageous vision in deciding to stage a nearly-new play first produced in another American city by a non-New York-based playwright. That should happen more often.
The set-change music consists of songs by U2, including "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." It is a sole appropriate choice in a play studded with weak choices. Whatever Ryan Rep was looking for when they embarked upon this theatrical venture, they haven't found it.
Copyright 2006 RL Nesvet
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