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Friend Art

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 26, 2016

Constantine Maroulis, Anabelle LeMieux,
Aaron Costa Ganis, and Zoe Chao
Photo by Joan Marcus

The title of Friend Art, the play by Sofia Alvarez that just opened at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series, refers in large part to the type of work you can only convince those closest to you to see. The people who already love you will love it because they have to; those who don't won't even bother showing up. It's the definition of insularity, of navel-gazing, of the type of creativity that achieves something, but not the one thing it's most supposed to: communication.

Perhaps the play itself, which has been directed by Portia Krieger, would be more convincing—and more entertaining—if it weren't its own kind of echo chamber. But Alvarez seems determined, intentionally or otherwise, to prove her thesis correct by crafting a lean evening (a mere 80 minutes) that's all about pretending to say something while in fact it's not saying anything. If it's supposed to be meta, demonstrating by example precisely what it's arguing against, then mission accomplished. But that doesn't mean it's fulfilling.

Rather, it's dry, frequently tripping up in the banality of its own self-deluded adventurousness. The most pivotal character is Lil (Anabelle LeMieux), a performance artist whose entire stage oeuvre falls into the titular category. When we first meet her, she's cataloging her notions of fear by way of a flashlight and a spinning cantaloupe; later, a snake, first rigid and soon floppy, figures prominently in her love life. (Subtlety is not the order of the day here.) Two of her closest friends—Kevin (Aaron Costa Ganis) and his fiancĂ©e Molly (Zoe Chao)—aren't sure what to say to her; her ex-boyfriend and current-something Nate (Constantine Maroulis), who's also Kevin's oldest friend, seems more genuinely supportive. Still, no one argues with the proposition that Lil isn't going anywhere.

Neither is anyone else, really. Kevin, a corporate art curator, has given up hope of finding a job he loves, and is about ready to move with Molly to Virginia so he can attend law school. Molly's found some pleasure in office-job life after bombing as an actress, but still carries a sputtering torch for that life. And Nate, a teenage one-hit-wonder rocker in the 1990s, is now living off his past fortune and glories, unable to recapture his brief moment in the spotlight beyond showing up to make his unhip friends appear more cool. In other words, no one is content, so when Molly and Nate discover they're kindred spirits, and Kevin finds in Lil's wayward act an outlet for his own managerial ambitions, it looks as though sparks are about to fly and the temperature about to shoot through the ceiling.

That's not quite how things roll here, however. Alvarez spends the remainder of her play—literally, until the very last line of the very last scene—writing around these relationships, as if to always make you think they're unwinding in ways she has no intention of letting them. Misunderstandings are rife, but fizzle out within moments of flaring up; no one ever does anything wrong, and no one is interested in pursuing misconceptions to their natural conclusions, so even when things occur, nothing actually happens. By the third or fourth scene packed with sexual innuendo that ends with a character offended at the notion another would consider sleeping with him or her, you start to feel manipulated—and not in a good way.

This uncertainty is part of Alvarez's point, playing on the second meaning of the title: Maintaining friendships on the proper term is its own kind of bewitching juggling act. True. But because Alvarez doesn't delve into the complexities and explore the nature of all the connections we're supposed to accept (both the romantic pairings feel off, and it's never clear why rock-sex-god-in-decline Nate has any affinity at all for the hopelessly square Kevin), everything zips by in a fuzzy, unaffecting blur. Krieger's staging, on a handsome, comfy bi-level loft set by Daniel Zimmerman, is well paced but muted, as though it too is finding these people's attitudes toward each other confusing.

The actors, too, plod through their scenes with vague, deer-in-the-headlights expressions that suggest they can't make a lot of sense of it, either; only Maroulis, a former American Idol headliner, seems a tight fit and as though he's halfway enjoying himself. Still, he's expected to make a flirter and cheater likable without more to work with than a post-yoga ice-cream scene and some fractured advice to the women about the price of fame. Maybe Nate's a human being, but, like everyone else here, he hasn't been written like one who has the courage of any convictions—or, for that matter, as much as mild indifference.

That's part of the problem with loading a play with characters who have been so burned by their own failures: They're not a lot of fun to watch and, in the end, not fit to be around anyone but each other. That explains why, for each of them, friend art is more or less the only kind of art there is, but it doesn't make for a good reason to see Friend Art when so many other options are available that find much more worth in looking outward than inward.

Friend Art
Through June 12
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: 2econdStage Theatre

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