What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 21, 2008
I've recently joined Facebook, and doing so has caused me to think about just what the word "friend" means nowadays. (I'm not even talking about the fact that, thanks to social networking websites, "friend" is now a verb.) Are all the people who are your friends on Facebook actually your friends? People you "know, like, or trust" (definition 1 in the American Heritage College Dictionary); people with whom you are "allied in a struggle or cause" (definition 3)? "An acquaintance" (definition 2)?
Though playwright Larry Kunofsky is not one of my Facebook friends (as far as I know, he's not on Facebook at all), I suspect that he's been thinking about some of the foregoing, and that those thoughts led him to his new "anti-social comedy," What to Do When You Hate All Your Friends. Directed by Jacob Krueger and presented impeccably by Kunofsky and Krueger's Four Chairs Theater, What to Do is funny, ambitious, and a little bit vexing. There's a tension that runs all through the piece: the curmudgeonly misanthrope who could think of a title like this is battling the romantic idealist who knows that if only you can find your soulmate, hating or liking your friends probably won't matter all that much.
And indeed, at its very heart, What to Do is a (modern, sort-of) romantic comedy. Matt, a man about whom we know almost nothing except that he hates all his friends, is instantly attracted to Celia, a woman about whom we know almost nothing except that she is the head of some kind of semi-secret club (or cult) called the Friends. The Friends have systematized the trauma that is maintaining relationships in this hyper-/disconnected century of ours; they have rules and planned parties and a complex rating system and even secret club signals that can increase or decrease another member's ranking on the Friend hierarchy.
In its substitution of superficiality for depth, the Friends feels like a stand-in for the world of MySpace and Facebook, and What to Do is insightful and smart about the anti-friendly trappings that an organization like this necessarily must encompass. (I felt that the Friends' apparent dearth of members was problematic, however; maybe this was solely an economic decision based on cast size, but I thought for the idea to really work, the Friends needed to be a really big society, with scads and scads of members.)
But I would argue that ultimately the Friends isn't really the heart and soul of this play; instead, Kunofsky seems most interested in the various strategies—many of which are sadly and starkly cynical—that both Matt and Celia use to combat their rampant aloneness through interactions with (relative) strangers. A truly hilarious scene in Act Two, about which more cannot be said here, perhaps illustrates this theme best, but the notion runs throughout the piece and makes this a comedy with a strain of sadness in it.
Todd D'Amour and Carrie Keranen, two fine actors, play Matt and Celia; D'Amour, in particular, has terrific opportunities to prove himself a thoroughly adept comic physical actor, something I've never really seen him do to such advantage before. Amy Staats plays Enid, the play's narrator and presumably our guide into the story; hers is a character that failed to charm me and I actually wondered if she was even really needed in the proceedings at all. Newcomer Josh Lefkowitz and the spectacular Susan Louise O'Connor play everyone else in the play, eight characters between them; see What to Do to see O'Connor create four remarkable and fully-fleshed out women, and switch among them on a dime. This is a grand showcase for one of the New York theatre's grandest young performers.
Krueger's staging is brisk and fun, though it seemed to me that the spatial relationships weren't always consistent (a sliding panel containing what looks like a front door has been provided by set designer Niluka Hotaling to differentiate locales, but nevertheless I wasn't always sure where I was). Melissa Trn's costumes are excellent, though, as is Ryan Maeker's evocative sound design—both add lots of discreet information to the proceedings.
Kunofsky's voice is original and quirky and there's much to recommend in this show. But in the end, I couldn't help feeling that the lines between superficial acquaintanceship (characterized by annoying small talk), authentic friendship, and the deepest kind of lasting relationships that most of us aspire to kept getting blurred in this play.