Has someone been traveling around peddling the idea
that all a play now needs to be successful is quirky characters, snappy dialog
and a speech at the end about the meaning of life?
I ask because three shows I've recently seen
fit that formula and despite having been written by pedigreed playwrights and performed
by talented casts, all three ran off the rails.
Going in alphabetical order, I'll start with Can You Forgive
a comedy by Gina Gionfriddo that is running at the Vineyard Theatre
through this weekend but that is nowhere near as entertaining as the earlier
works (Becky Shaw
and Rapture, Blister, Burn
) that twice made Gionfriddo a
A bookrack filled with 19th century novels has been
conspicuously placed in the Vineyard's lobby, a nod to the fact that the play's
title is borrowed from the 1864 Anthony Trollope novel of the same name and
that its storyline is a modern spin on the literary marriage plot in which an aspiring
young woman tries to better her circumstances by hooking up with a rich guy.
And right there we have a problem. Because this is not the
19th century and what such a woman can now do is get a job and make her own
money. However that option doesn't seem to have occurred to Miranda, the
title's eponymous "her."
Instead, despite having a degree from a top college, Miranda sleeps with men who will pay her bills, take her out to fancy restaurants and
buy her goodies like Gucci handbags. When one of her sugar daddies discovers
that she's seeing another, she hides out in the home of
Graham and Tanya, a working-class couple in
the New Jersey beach town where Miranda is visiting.
Graham and Tanya have relationship problems of their own. He
is emotionally paralyzed by the recent death of his mother and she's a single
mom who has a history of making bad choices.
None of this makes much sense. It's hard to believe that
Tanya, already nervous about Graham, would leave him alone with Miranda. And
it's even more unlikely that each of Miranda's lovers would show up and then
hang around to squabble.
Can You Forgive Her? is only 90 minutes but the first hour
seemed like two. Amber Tamblyn works hard (perhaps too hard) to make Miranda an
irresistible kook (click here to read an interview with her) but the play only
comes alive in its final third when Frank Wood arrives as the older of Miranda's
two lovers. Wood's character isn't any more convincing than the others but this
actor is such a master craftsman that he truly is irresistible.
The premise of The End of Longing,
which opened Monday night
in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, also strains
credulity. It opens with a guy hitting on a woman at a trendy bar. She turns
him down but moments later they discover that their best friends are dating one
another and before you can say "Pisco Sour" they've hook up too.
But, as in any romcom, there are obstacles. And theirs are
doozies. He, Jack, is an alcoholic in denial. She, Stephanie, is a $2,500-a-night
call girl. Each tries to be tolerant of the other's foible until they can't.
Then, toward the end of the show's 100-minute running time,
Jack has an epiphany, delivers a fervent soliloquy and everybody, including Stephanie's
neurotic best friend (nice to see Sue Jean Kim cast in a role that isn't
specifically Asian) and Jack's salt-of-the-earth bestie, end up happily (click here to read the cast's reflections on the show).
There are only two things that make this show even passably
noteworthy. The first is that it's written by and stars Matthew Perry, who is
still best known for playing Chandler on the sitcom "Friends." His residually
high Q-Score is clearly the reason that the Lortel has had to open its rarely used
balcony to accommodate the demand for seats.
The second thing is that Perry has waged his own battles
against booze and drugs and has become such a major advocate for drug
rehabilitation programs that he even converted his former Malibu mansion into a
home for recovering addicts. Those experiences inform Jack's climactic speech about the challenges of staying sober. It's the most genuine thing in the
play. But, alas, it's not enough to save it.
which is playing in a New Group production at
The Pershing Square Signature Center through June 18, also boasts celebrity
authorship. It's written by the actor Hamish Linklater (click here for a Q&A with him)
and features incidental music by Duncan Sheik.
Although primarily an ensemble piece, this drama centers
around a young woman named Julie, who is so gravely ill that she's already
lying in a hospital bed onstage when the audience enters The
Griffin theater at Pershing Square. A series of flashbacks explain how she got
there and how her approaching death is affecting the lives of her family and
The story is told through one of those fractured narratives
that so many writers now resort to instead of just figuring out how to create
momentum in a straight-ahead narrative. I tried to follow what was going on but
eventually gave up. But at least I stayed for the second act; several of the
people at the matinee I attended ducked out during the intermission break.
What kept me going were the first-rate performances. Zosia Mamet brought welcomed humor and pathos to the role of
Julie's best friend, a former wild child who blames herself for the bad choices
that have landed Julie in that hospital bed.
And it was particularly great to see Norbert Leo Butz back onstage
as Julie's dad, who wonders what part his self-absorption has played in the
tragedy. He gets the epiphany speech in this one and, no surprise, Butz delivers it well. But,
as they say in the news business, all three of these plays are too much tell
and not nearly enough show.