The End of Longing
It is brave for a star of Matthew Perry's magnitude to stick his head above the parapet like this by both writing and starring in a new play. Perrymania ensues however and we get wolf whistles at his entrance and a round of applause for his big speech, even if the play hasn't finished yet. With 10 years of Friends episodes out there on a permanent loop on TV screens the world over it's going to be a long while yet before anyone forgets about Chandler. You'd think Perry would want some clear blue water between them but no. What we get here is Chandler the grouch.
It's LaBute with added gags, as we explore the lives of two forty-something couples in LA who hook up in a bar and fall in and out of love and try and come to terms with their slide into dreary middle age. Perry's character Jack is a misanthropic but still functioning alcoholic and comes across like Jack Lemmon in The Prisoner of Second Avenue, all pudgy and dyspeptic. He reeks of grumpy old man nihilism with an added soupçon of misogyny thrown in for good measure.
The female characters don't come off well. There's Stephanie (Jennifer Mudge) a confident statuesque blonde who revels in her work as a $2,500 per hour hooker and her best friend Stevie (Christina Cole) a coiled spring of anger constantly whining at her dull but sensible boyfriend Joe. She's bright but unlike any real bright people you've ever met goes on about it. Too often the writing is burdened by this desire to tell rather than to show, with characters describing how they feel. Joe is meant to be dumb but his articulacy belies this fact. Neither does it help having hunky Lloyd Owen playing the part. Would he really stick around for Stevie's kvetching?
The polarities here – fantasy high class hooker vs. whiney mother-in-law type – give you some idea of the sexual politics at play and the piece often feels about 40 years old. Perhaps moving from tart with a heart to tart with an Amex Gold is progress to some but for the two actresses here, there's a mountain to climb.
Again unlike any alcoholic you ever knew, Jack proudly proclaims the fact to everyone. Alcoholism is mostly a cheat in plays, a cheap shortcut to the audience's sympathies and here is no different. What might have compensated for this, such as some fresh insight into the pain and delusion of problem drinking, is brushed aside in favour of glib, cheap gags. It's the curse of Neil Simon.
Dramatic set-pieces, too, ring hollow. In a hospital waiting room, where Stevie is about to give birth, Joe confronts Jack about his selfishness, after he realises that Jack has slipped out for a quick vodka to steady his shakes. Why would this be a surprise to any friend of an alcoholic? Neither does the bond between the two women convince for a second.
Director Lindsay Posner does keep it moving at a steady pace but the rhythm of these staccato scenes screams out Screenplay! Anna Fleischle's set and Lucy Carter's lighting are as expert as you'd expect from those two designers at the top of their game.
Perry says in a programme note that his aim was to tell the story of four broken people trying to find love and that fact that it is possible for people to change but as we slouch towards the telegraphed happy ending we're left with just bumper-sticker wisdom. Joe admonishes Jack and Stephanie for their navel gazing and declares "You're good people, you deserve to be happy". More of a self-help book than an insight into the human condition.
Tickets: Playhouse Theatre