nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
February 23, 2007
Anna Ziegler's new play BFF is about Lauren and Eliza, two girls whom we first meet when they are 12 years old, and who pledge to be—at least for now—"Best Friends Forever."
In this opening scene, Lauren and Eliza sit by the pool, idling away the hours as young kids do, wondering when their lives will begin and what their futures will be like. They are nostalgic for a time in their lives that hasn't happened yet. J.D. Salinger is probably the poet laureate of this sort of thing, and Ziegler stakes her own claim in this play for not only capturing that feeling of adolescent ennui, but even more importantly and poignantly, depicting the vagaries and subtleties of friendship between girls who are approaching womanhood all too quickly.
By the time the girls reach 14, a difference between them begins to set it. Lauren, our protagonist, is the more conventional of the two teenagers. Boy-craziness and social-animal-ism are beginning to creep up on her with a vengeance. Eliza, however, is more of the outcast. She dresses a little frumpily. She has no use for anyone other than Lauren and her own mom. Her taste in music runs towards Adult Easy Listening. And fads tend to freak her out a little. However, Eliza's melancholia is no affectation. She is dealing—or not dealing—with the loss of her father. Eliza populates grief as if it were another country, and this makes her alien to Lauren.
When BFF deals with this adolescent friendship, it shimmers with lyricism, gentle wit, and a good deal of wisdom. The playwright's skill in evoking this adolescent friendship is matched by the enormous strengths of the actors Sasha Eden and Laura Heisler, who portray the young girls with a remarkable level of emotional honesty and verisimilitude. When the play is grounded in this relationship, the production reaches a great synthesis of all of its elements and is very powerful.
However, this is really only half of the play, and the other half is nowhere near as satisfying. BFF weaves back and forth in time between Lauren's adolescence and her adulthood. As an adult—quite unlike the way she was as a kid—Lauren is a mess. She is clearly haunted by Eliza, and seems to be unable to move on with her life. In fact, when Lauren meets a guy, Seth, at her yoga center, she introduces herself as "Eliza."
The adult Lauren's inability to escape her childhood demons is an intriguing premise, but one that is handled—at least in my opinion—with nowhere near as much sharpness as the scenes set in childhood. The contrast between the rich details of the adolescent world and the vague and somewhat generic-seeming world of adulthood in this play is unfortunately jarring.
My problem with the adults in this play is that I don't really believe in them. Lauren is definitely haunted and troubled, but we only get a sense of her troubles based on what she tells Seth. She claims to have no life outside of her work as a marine biologist (a job that is referred to constantly, but for which no evidence really exists in her onstage life), but this non-living existence that the adult Lauren claims to have is in no way dramatized by the playwright. What is clearly dramatized is that the adult Lauren is struggling profoundly in her late 20s with the idea of being in a meaningful relationship. So are we to assume that Lauren's experiences in college and grad school were devoted only to academics? Has her life post-Eliza been devoid of socializing and romance? This is a fascinating concept but one that is not remotely touched upon onstage and is therefore difficult to believe. And, crucially, the details of what exactly has happened to Eliza are inexplicably unfocused and unclear.
Seth is an amiable character, and he is played quite affably by Jeremy Webb, but Seth seems little more than a McBoyfriend in this play, as if he were produced on an assembly line to please about half the audience in some general way. He's a nice guy, successful, a little dopey but non-threatening, and his presence in the adult Lauren's life challenges her to realize what's been missing for her all these years; but there's no urgency to this character. Lauren's onstage childhood is rife with contradictions; she is wounded and yet spirited and filled with energy. Lauren's adult boyfriend is just Some Guy. This contrast sadly deflates the power of the play.
The strength of the childhood scenes is constantly sapped by the weak adulthood scenes. This is further exacerbated by the back-and-forth-in-time structure. The scenes are very short—almost cinematic in their brevity—and each little scene furthers the plot along in dribs and drabs. This structure gives the overall play a plodding, mechanical, almost mathematical feel to it. Director Josh Hecht does an excellent job keeping the actors engaged with one another, creating a true intimacy among the ensemble, but even this intimacy can't mask the leaden pace of the play in transitions between the childhood and the adulthood scenes, making the play seem much longer than its 90 intermissionless minutes.
And so I'm torn in my feelings on BFF—almost in half. I'll spend no more time on how dissatisfied I was with the adulthood scenes in the play, but that is why I can not wholeheartedly recommend this play. What works here, though, works beautifully.
It's worth repeating that the performances are consistently excellent. Despite my aforementioned problems with the character of Seth, I was won over by Jeremy Webb's portrayal, especially during a surprising little song that he sings with great charm. Sasha Eden is in every scene, and so she basically carries the play. She seems to do so tirelessly. Laura Heisler is a fearless actor who is able to imbue great dignity to a character in moments of almost grotesque pain and vulnerability.
And I should repeat myself yet again when it comes to the playwright's ability to evoke adolescence, that twilight zone of our lives when everything that we feel is felt so deeply and unwaveringly. Anna Ziegler has few peers in writing about that time and those feelings.