Meg's New Friend
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
November 29, 2009
Meg has a problem: She has zero black friends. In the Obama Era, this unsettles the image-conscious Meg, and so she sets out to court her first black pal. What follows in The Production Company's current offering at Manhattan Theatre Source is not quite race-baiting satire, but rather a thoroughly enjoyable non-romantic comedy: Not an Apatow-esque bro-mance, but a faux-mance.
Meg, stuck in a bickering, dead-end relationship with Sam, sets her platonic sights on Ty. As Ty happens to be dating Rachel, Meg's best friend and Sam's sister, each offers the other new perspectives: From perches upon race and gender, but also from deep within otherwise singularly viewed interpersonal relationships. Meg's new friend, in fact, presents many a novel dynamic into Meg's previously tight wound and unhappy life. Fireworks ensue.
Though at times formulaic, playwright Blair Singer's Meg's New Friend is steeped in detail and immediacy; Manhattanites and other denizens of the tri-state area will enjoy the familiar references, and be taken in by the lives of these identifiable characters. This does not, however, forgive a handful of missteps that prove problematic as the show winds towards its decidedly unsentimental resolution. Ty's sexual proclivities skirt the ugliest of African American stereotypes, and it is hard to avoid contemplating titillating implications and suggestive cliches when Ty finds himself unwaveringly desired by multiple Caucasian women; perhaps Singer is making a statement about men and women—or merely this man and these woman—yet, in a play whose earliest scenes show great promise of delivering a sophisticated meditation on current race relations, these one-night frolics seem a bit wayward. Additionally, each of the go-getter characters in this four-hander at one point or another shows a grievous and unchecked lapse in professional or emotional decorum, and though theatre operates on a willing suspension of disbelief, the other half of the transaction is an audience's expectation of real-world consequences for real-world characters.
None of which is to say Meg's New Friend is not entertaining, funny, or provocative. In fact, Director Mark Armstrong has crafted a wily, laugh-inducing romp that fits handsomely into the intimate Manhattan Theatre Source. Featuring rat-a-tat dialogue that overlaps with an easy, naturalistic patter, Armstrong's signature combination of electric stillness punctuated by movement grounded in need serves well this fast-moving production. Comedy runs on light feet, the gurus of humor say, and Meg's New Friend positively floats.
As Meg, Megan McQuillan radiates charm. She brings warmth and an endearing neuroticism to a character whose Type-A tension and selfishness could have otherwise reminded of caricature. We have seen characters like Meg before, from Shakespeare's Shrew to a host of Stoppard creations, to cinema's How Stella Got Her Groove Back or, most recent, the abhorrently misogynist The Ugly Truth: A woman whose knickers are on too tight, who ultimately defers to the influence of a free-wheeling man to loosen them. It is to McQuillan's immense credit that such comparisons never ultimately detract from her portrayal, or prevent an audience from empathizing with her (largely self-imposed) plight.
In the title role, the superb Damon Gupton commands every moment he appears on stage. Gupton's Ty is a bear of a man, at once stoically masculine and driven by primacy, yet possessed of an appealing emotional vulnerability. When the show does comment directly on issues of race, it is Ty who gets the best of the lines, and Gupton delivers them well, particularly a brief deviation on current politics and coffee sans-sugar or cream ("Obama-ass coffee"). Gupton's ease and sly humor make Ty the character to watch in this ensemble outing.
As Rachel and Sam, Mary Cross and Michael Solomon share a chemistry and mutual respect that makes them believable as siblings. Cross proves a masterful comedian, twisting punch lines like a flying ace into whirled patterns of acceleration and decline, catching unexpected laughs and carrying them aloft. When Singer's script turns to pathos, Cross demonstrates equal ability: her Rachel is a wounded creature, perhaps most deserving of sympathy and a brighter day. As Sam, a high-rolling lawyer who typically appears pressed and crimped into tailored threads, Solomon is appropriately intense and oft insensitive to his long-suffering girlfriend. A late scene requires Sam to flirt with latent racist tendencies, a tricky sequence Solomon manages with dignity and a measure of humanity.
Meg's New Friend features an attractive set by April Bartlett that proves more versatile than one might expect, and an evocative sound design by Isaac Butler. Nestled into the playing space at Manhattan Theatre Source, this is an inviting production, full of good cheer and a surprising, unvarnished optimism. The Production Company's reputation for staging enjoyable, pleasantly difficult theatre continues with this affable comedic offering. This is a show worth seeing.