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Theatre in Review: Ross & Rachel (Brits Off Broadway/59E59)

Molly Vevers. Photo: Alex Brenner

They say there are two sides to every marriage -- and in Ross & Rachel, they are both embodied by a single person. The actress Molly Vevers channels both partners in a wildly mismatched pair whose lives are unraveling -- or not -- in the face of tragedy. James Fritz's script isn't easy; at times, it's almost willfully short on details, and certain passages are confusing to the point of frustration. But there's an ugly truth at the play's center that seizes one's attention and refuses to let go.

"Sometimes I get really fucking sick of it. Don't you?" That would be the female half of the couple speaking. She has reached the point that comes in some relationships when the tiniest details cause acute irritation -- a sign of deeper underlying trouble. "I just don't know when people started saying our names together," she frets. "We are together," he says. "Yes," she replies. "But I mean why do they always have to say my name second?" If this isn't enough of a red flag, consider that she can barely stand that he still boasts about her: "When she walks through the door every evening, I still get that feeling, you know? Just like wow. She's mine, you know? That woman belongs to me and I can't believe my luck." Even worse, he drives her batty by showing up at her place of work to take her out to lunch. The cad.

Not all eyes will weep for a woman in her forties whose husband is still over the moon about her, but that is the state of play. (They got together in their twenties, then broke up for unspecified reasons, reuniting later in life -- thus the title, which alludes to the long-running on-again, off-again lovers on the sitcom Friends.) Clearly, they are headed for counseling, or divorce court, or, at the very least, a rough patch, when he takes ill and the verdict is delivered: He has a year or less to live. "Well, of course," she says, "it hits you like a bullet, news like that. It hits you like a train and I'm devastated that -- But actually. No." And we're off, through a scalding passage of antiphonal voices, contrasting his adoring portrait of his loving, supportive wife with her growing realization that "I'm actually a bit excited to find out who I am when he's not around anymore."

It would be easy to dismiss him as a fool and her as a callous bitch, but Fritz's writing is felicitous enough that this doesn't happen. He is merely being honest about two people brought down by a terrible event at the exact moment that their marriage has come into question. The text is filled with odd bits that humanize both characters and leave one pitying them for the no-exit situation in which they find themselves. He, trying to distance himself from his bleak reality, dreams of striking up "a friendship with a sassy nurse who says something sassy at precisely the right moment to break the tension." She, attending to him in the hospital and offering the usual endearments, stops and asks herself, "Did he just feel me recoil?" She is troubled by surreal dreams that fill her with panic. And back at the hospital, she says to him, "Whatever happens after you're gone, I promise to be happy." Instantly, she asks herself, "Why did I just tell him that?" -- a question that plagues him, too. One minute, he is accepting the fact that another man will come along and become the love of her life; the next minute he is snarling, "I hope the guilt chokes her."

Without an authoritative performance, Ross & Rachel would be unpalatably sour, incomprehensible, or both. It takes a few minutes to get into Vevers' rhythm, but once one does, her fierce and uncompromising dedication to Fritz's words carry one past any objections, putting one in disturbingly close proximity to this benighted pair. Vevers doesn't develop a separate voice for each character; the radical shifts in mood -- his growing panic and bitterness and her peculiar mix of hope and self-lacerating shame -- are all one needs to grasp who is speaking. At one point, she fearlessly gazes into the eyes of various audience members, as if daring them to cast judgment on her; a relatively new performer, she clearly thrives on high-risk challenges.

Mysteriously, the director, Thomas Martin, has chosen to stage the script as a kind of ritual, with Vevers, clad in a bathrobe, in front of a shallow pool surrounded by votive candles. (The production designer is Alison Neighbour.) I guess we're supposed to see it as a kind of cleansing ritual -- she will end up in the water before the night is over -- but this (including a hanging metal sculpture dotted with twinkle lights) is a pretentious idea that adds little and may even distract a bit from the text. Much better is Douglas Green's lighting, which strikes a mood of deep introspection with only a handful of carefully placed units. In any case, Vevers has a way of silently demanding that one look at her even in moments of semi-darkness.

The highly unpleasant, starkly observant Ross & Rachel is more memorable as a calling card for a young playwright and his leading lady than for the work itself. Nevertheless, there is plenty of talent here -- a distinctive writer's voice and a commanding performer. One of the best things about the Brits Off Broadway series is the chance to encounter striking new faces one hopes -- indeed, expects -- to see again; add Fritz and Vevers to the list. -- David Barbour


(26 May 2016)

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