Dear Friends at Just Off-Broadway: They May Not Be There For You

By Mark Briner

DISCLAIMERPlease note, one or more persons directly involved in this production are members of the staff of Backstage Baltimore. This individual or persons did not write or participate in writing this review. The only editing performed on this piece was for grammar, punctuation, and organization. No content editing (adding, changing, or omitting words) were completed without the expressed permission of the author.

Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission

In this internet age of 2017, there is not one person reading this column that does not have that ubiquitous, annoying friend or relative who bemoans all the woes of their lives to them personally—the sexless bedroom, the kids’ classroom struggles, the anger, hate, and silence on a daily basis—then logs onto Facebook and posts picture after picture of the perfect Osmond-like family moments, the spouse who is the love of their life, the all-American perfect 2.3 golden children who excel at everything, the blessings of family they gratefully thank God for on a daily basis, the entire “life is beautiful and I’m so thankful” package. As we find in the east coast premiere of Dear Friends by Reginald Rose, presented this weekend only at Just Off Broadway, it’s actually a tale as old as time. Except fifty years ago, the fraud was generally confined to suburban cocktail pleasantries and the annual fake Christmas card letter.

Originally a screenplay written for CBS Playhouse as part of a live television series of plays in 1967 starring such luminaries as Rosemary Harris, Eli Wallach, James Daly, Pernell Roberts, and Hope Lange, the saga opens at a dinner party for eight longtime dear friends hosted, secretly, in efforts to stage an intervention in concern for two of their group, Michael and Lois (Jason Crawford and Tracy Dye) who have recently separated. The ambush however backfires when we soon find that, like in real life, their efforts are not totally altruistic. The fact that one of their own marriages in their close-knit group could fall apart suddenly threatens each of the couples’ not so solid as they would have the others believe relationships.

Cast of Dear Friends. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The play alternates between the events of the soireé on the traditional mainstage with flashbacks to each of the four couples in private on a satellite platform on the audience floor. In these transitions, we learn the cracks beneath each of their perfect veneers they wear for each other. In an attempt to contemporize a dated script (an affair—shocking!), director Patrick Jay Golden shakes up the gender balance (the four heterosexual white suburban couples in the script are now two straight, one lesbian, and one gay) and utilizes a welcome diverse cast of interracial relationships.

Penny Nichols and Tom Piccin. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Mature couple Lenny and Charlotte (Tom Piccin and Penny Nichols) encourage Michael and Lois to think of their children. But after a late night of Lenny “entertaining a client”, we find their marriage to be a farce fueled by a toxic cocktail of alcohol and anger. The darkest of the relationships, as they pour from a never-ending super-sized bottle of Canadian Club, they heap emotional and physical abuse upon each other in proportion to the alcohol they down. Yet the stay together because they can’t think of a better option to satisfy their individual selfish needs. Think of the children. Piccin and Nichols range from volatile to downright terrifying as the night carries on until these traits publicly unveil themselves at the gathering.

Sarah O’Hara and India Palmer. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Lesbian couple Gigi and Vivian (Sarah O’Hara and India Palmer) actually seem to have a genuine loving relationship. Their only flaw, albeit a critical one, is their disparate views on starting a family. Vivian longs for the experience of motherhood; Gigi isn’t interested. However, they have an extra dimension to their deception. Whereas all the other couples lies are ones of (significant) omission, Gigi and Vivian add a layer of active duplicity, inventing medical complications including a fake cancer scare to justify Gigi’s refusal to have children. Palmer is sweet, gentle, and loving to a fault, burying any disappointment her wife’s decision evokes behind her radiant façade. O’Hara mines an addition layer to her character, so quick to be vocally “honest” regarding the flaws and fallacies of her friends, all the while perpetuating the biggest lie that caused everyone genuine concern and unwarranted worry.

Brad Angst, Joyanne Gohl, and Emmanuel Vickers. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

As the hosts of the evening, gay couple Douglas and Sal (Brad Angst and Emmanuel Vickers) are perhaps the most stereotypically comic in their personal scenes. Angst is the gay trifecta of precision, polish, and perfection, while Vickers is hyper-emotional and tending towards the dramatic. However, when Douglas does the math and deduces that Sal has been unfaithful, the couple draws deep on restraint and inner strength to consciously maintain that perfection they apparently consider so important to their public image. Their scenes are a cool complement to the bombastic, burn the house down Albee-esque theatrics of Lenny and Charlotte.

Tracy Dye and Jason Crawford. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

All the couples in the engaging cast have strong, well defined bonds between themselves, and hide these from the group in their own manipulative ways. But it is Crawford and Dye as the couple in the center of the storm who excel. True, they are aided by the strongest storyline in script, being the only couple who is completely honest with their friends and each other. But their private scenes are not about lies and resentment, instead they are about harsh honesty and unpleasant choices. Ironically the couples with all the secreted problems manage to stay together while these two drift apart not from issues and betrayals, but from simple stagnation. Yet in the midst of the histrionics of the dinner party aimed at saving them, they actually draw closer together, defending their privacy and each other, observing the dislikeable facets of their friends which makes them appreciate the qualities they admire in each other that initially drew them together. We leave the evening in doubt about the future of every couple in the piece, but these two with their amiability and genuine respect for each other, despite actually being separated, may actually be the strongest bet for the duo to be left standing down the road.

Though Theresa Bonvegna is the Resident Set Designer for Just Off Broadway, Jason Crawford and Patrick Jay Golden take the lead on this one and do an admirable job on the main dinner party set creating the ambiance of Douglas and Sal’s gay tastes, utilizing sleek lines in the furniture and fun accents like framed Broadway playbills and a Warholian shrine to Audrey Hepburn across the back wall. Their secondary set on the floor employs sometimes extravagant touches to set the tone of locales from an Atlantic City hotel room to a garden patio brunch. Sometimes his attention to detail on the secondary set leads to extended set changes between scenes. Perhaps they could have chosen a more generic design that could flex into different locations, or have collaborated with Golden to stage them in a common room in everyone’s house. However, having seen a press preview early in production week, these lengthy set changes could have very well ironed themselves out by opening night. Lighting designer Alex Powell gives contrasting effects for the chaotic party and the more intimate scenes on the floor.

Cast of Dear Friends. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Director Golden has assembled a very capable and engaging cast through which to interpret his revisionist piece. Golden defends his bold choices of shaking up the genders in the relationships by stating that at the core, all marriages suffer from the same base issues. (Famed gay playwright Terrance McNally might disagree). His able cast gamely embraces the challenge, but with mixed results. For instance, the gender flip of Gigi and Vivian defuses their script. A woman who isn’t interested in adopting or raising another woman’s child doesn’t carry the emotional heft of a husband who doesn’t want to have a child with his wife, the denial of a basic emotional need and betrayal of the very basis of their marriage. In the case of Douglas and Sal, however, the gender flip adds a layer of complexity when a revealed extramarital affair, a common enough issue in the gay community (famed gay playwright Terrance McNally would absolutely agree), transforms a bored bedroom dalliance amongst the group into a lie at the very core of another marriage with its down low implications of closeted homosexuality and an almost direct assault on the boundaries of the group as a corp.

Golden displays proficiencies to be a more intimate director, finding the heart in the scenes between the couples in their private territory, exploring their deceit and flaws while finding their unique pairings. He moves them fluidly through their paces and establishes their inner connections and their outward disconnects. Mechanically, though, his group scenes at the dinner party by contrast are slightly static, lacking blocking movement and physical dynamics. He is not aided by the major flaw in set design, laying out the living room like an actual living room and not a stage (or TV) set space. The sofa is centered and side chairs hug the walls completely across the stage, instead of being drawn into a more intimate central arena in relationship to the sofa and other set pieces. When actors are confined to these seats, the result is a lot of shouted unpleasantries across the room instead of the more personal, in your face assaults the words suggest. This also affects the pacing and emotional dynamics of these encounters since everyone hurls insults from a very safe distance, instead of the lines coming fast and quick, on top of and over each other in the face of the heated, impassioned revelations that unravel the group in the final scenes. Again, however, this was an early dress rehearsal and the cast may improve the pace by merely being more familiar with the scene as the week progressed.

Overall, Dear Friends is an evening of reflection that encourages one to look inward into their own relationships, and reminds us that those daily, awesome, life affirming Facebook posts those dear friends of our own make ad nauseum, usually mask, in direct proportion, the lies and insecurities that are at the heart of the exaggerations. Golden has given us a mirror in which to examine our own exteriors, and the multiple faces covering the various truths and lies that we tell the world, each other, and ourselves in order to get by at the end of the day.

This is what I thought of Just Off Broadway’s production of Dear Friends… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Dear Friends will play through May 21 at Just Off Broadway @ JELC, 4506 Belair Road, Baltimore, MD 21206. For ticket reservation information, email justoffbroadwaymd@gmail.com or purchase them online.

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