IN THE END, AN HONOURABLE PLAY
Its fame rolls before it: a debut play, premiered in London by Matthew Perry. To a generation of young adults (and to many far younger, thanks to ceaseless repeats) he is “Chandler from FRIENDS”. Moreover, Perry has openly talked about his alcoholism, amphetamine use and rehab, and contributes to allied causes. And the play itself, in which he stars, is about four of his contemporaries – the Friends generation now rising forty – living in New York and still not settled in life.
Small surprise, then, that the audience is young, prone to go “whoo!” at Perry’s first appearance in the bar-room set as the defiantly debonair Jack, declaring his unswerving dedicated to drink. Small wonder that some, near us ,were young enough to go “aaah’ at pushbutton romantic or touching moments. And, to be brutal, small wonder that the first half is low on subtlety or ambiguity (the four characters all, in US sitcom style, tend to say both to one another and sometimes direct to us, exactly what they mean and feel: no scope for guessing or revelation).
So there are moments of flat dismay in that first half, which had too much of a first-draft feeling for comfort. What happens is just that Jack the drunkard falls for Stephanie the beautiful, cynical high-class prostitute (Jennifer Mudge) and her neurotic, baby-hungry friend Stevie (Christina Cole) hooks up rather contemptuously with the apparently dim Joe (Lloyd Owen) even though he is, she moans, so stupid he doesn’t even have a therapist…
Thus there are moments in that first act when you glumly think that it’s just Sex and the City without the wit and one-liners, or Friends run to seed. The uncommitted might abandon it at the interval. But they shouldn’t. The second act catches fire, as at last some reality burns off the sitcom fluffiness. Stevie and Joe tentatively commit, because she’s pregnant, but Jack’s drinking becomes no longer cute and knowing but ugly and disruptive. An angry stalemate with Stephanie brings a rift when he won’t give up drink and she won’t give up escort work. In a telling line about drink he lays it out: without it, he is “needy, not funny and constantly afraid”.
A real crisis occurs around the pregnancy and the four find themselves in a hospital. The jokes become bitter; Perry is a terrific comedian (his gloomy announcement to an offstage nurse “You are not a nice person” is a delight). But when he leaves his distraught friends because he needs a bar, there is a real bitterness. Owen’s dim Joe, meanwhile, grows in decency and strength before our very eyes – a joy to watch = and this ironically means that the comedy around his comparative unsophistication is funnier (when he uses the world “vicissitudes”, the others stare in astonishment).
And it is Joe who finally bursts the bubble of frightened compulsion in the other couple. “There are ten million alcoholics in the world, talk to one of them! Life is not as complicated as you two make out. Stop being such fucking morons and sort your shit out!”.
So at last, in a moment of such genuine value to his generation that the play’s early weaknesses are forgiven, Perry steps forward as if at a first AA meeting, and delivers a speech which is wrenching, honest, deeply felt and lived. And if some fans leap to their feet in applause, you feel he earned it. As the author protectively says, it’s fiction, he is not Jack. But he knows him pretty damn well. And the use he is making of him is honourable.
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to 14 May