Theatre in Review: The End of Longing (MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre)
Matthew Perry has labored so long, and so successfully, in the world of television sitcoms that, apparently, he is having trouble getting out of that particular creative mindset. As the author and star of The End of Longing, he succumbs to the superficialities and easy gag-slinging of the sitcom format. In this romantic comedy-drama, the relationships are so thinly conceived as to beggar belief; the one fundamental requirement of the genre -- that the audience care about the couples getting together -- is left glaringly unfulfilled.
The improbabilities begin in the opening scene, set in an LA bar/restaurant, where Jack, a rather seedy-looking boozer in his mid-forties, tries, without success, to attract the attentions of two young ladies, Stephanie and Stevie, with offers of a threesome. Apart from everything else, they have other fish to fry: The ultra-tightly wound Stevie, who works for a pharmaceutical company that specializes in anti-depressants and treatments for erectile dysfunction ("If you are bummed about your boner, we are the people to talk to"), is flying into an anxiety attack because, four hours earlier, she texted the guy she is currently dating -- and he hasn't yet responded. Stephanie, casting a cold eye on her friend's dramatics, says, "This is why two years ago I took myself straight out of the dating game. To avoid exactly how you are feeling right now." When Jeffrey, the guy, shows up, he greets the ladies -- and also his good friend, Jack.
Following this coincidence -- the first of many -- The End of Longing moves swiftly to pair off the couples in semi-permanent arrangements. Despite Stevie's constant complaints about Jeffrey -- "The guy's not even in therapy," she snipes, in a line seemingly lifted from an old Woody Allen script -- she gets pregnant by him and he signs on for the roles of companion and parent, marriage not yet being on the table. Jack and Stephanie get plowed and fall into bed. The next morning, she informs him that she is a "high-end escort," a career she has pursued for a decade. They ultimately have sex, and, as Jack marvels to Jeffrey, "She did not make me pay. It was incredible. Like seeing Springsteen for free."
Jack and Stephanie soon have a regular (non-paying) thing going, but nagging little hints keep cropping up, suggesting that Jack might have a little problem -- like when he fills his wine glass to the very brim. Or when he shows up to play softball complete with a martini mixer. Or when Stevie encounters him in a pharmacy, in the throes of a full-fledged panic attack, begging the druggist to give him something, anything, even though he has no prescription. Despite a hundred and one warning signs, the truth doesn't break into the open until, one night, back at the bar, Jack appears, out of control, jumping on a table and teetering scarily on the edge while haranguing the others. (Lindsay Posner's staging of this scene has exactly the same high tension it would have in real life.)
In many ways, The End of Longing is a brave attempt by Perry -- who has had his own well-publicized problems with substance abuse -- to probe the emotional havoc that drunks can wreak on those they profess to love. But the play rests uneasily on the foundation of two highly implausible love affairs. It's hard to grasp what Stephanie sees in Jack, who, as written, comes across -- despite his career as a celebrity photographer -- as a crude, hapless loser. (In a typical incident, he describes falling asleep while watching a porn video on his laptop, waking to discover that he is accidentally broadcasting every groan and grunt through his outdoor sound system. (The troubles they have in LA!) Jack's drinking is explained as a reaction to a bad breakup twenty years earlier and Stephanie's sex-for-money career is said to be a response to her abusive father -- and that's it for character development. Most of their time together is spent in endless rounds of I'll-stop-drinking-when-you-stop-hooking arguments that go nowhere.
Stevie and Jeffrey fare no better. She comes across as a needy harridan armed with substandard wisecracks ("He thinks that Jurassic Park was a documentary") while becoming thoroughly reliant on Jeffrey, even as she holds him at arm's length. He is a strapping, sensitive, sexy construction worker, the kind of character usually found only in romance novels -- qualities that don't prevent him from taking part with Jack in an inventory of euphemisms for masturbation ("Jerking myself a soda. Punching the clown."). Perry struggles to keep comedy and drama in balance, resulting in scenes that seem blatantly manipulative. For example, the script plays Stevie's labor pains for standard farce, then puts her life in peril, a twist that is quickly abandoned as soon as it completes its assigned task of getting the estranged Jack and Stephanie talking to each other again.
Posner's direction is slick and fast-paced, but there is little he can do with a script that substitutes gag lines for character insights. Jack is so full of self-loathing that Perry can't really make him likeable, although the actor brings a raw sense of reality to an eleventh-hour appearance at AA, during which he finally opens up about his self-destructive ways. Jennifer Morrison is an attractive presence as Stephanie, but, because the script doesn't want us to think too hard about her profession, she remains a nicely dressed blank. Sue Jean Kim goes full-neurotic as Stevie -- who describes herself as "F-I-N-E: Fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional" -- gambling, ineffectively, that her character's behavior will prove hilarious. Quincy Dunn-Baker is affable as Jeffrey, but he has been given little or nothing to play.
Derek McLane's set -- a set of walls, filled with transparent bottles, backlit in a variety of colors by the gifted Ben Stanton -- slyly underlines the play's alcoholism theme, and its turntable reduces scene changes to a matter of seconds. Sarah Laux's costumes nicely individualize each character; note how Stephanie's ensemble in the final scene signals a change in her life. Ryan Rumery's sound design and original music buoyantly underscore the action.
Then again, it sounds like the sort of music used during transitions on three-camera sitcoms. The End of Longing wants to deal with some very painful matters, but its manner is far too slick. The play that Perry seems to be going for needs to be much funnier -- and much sadder. -- David Barbour