Coffee & Fools
nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
June 11, 2008
When I was a freshman at NYU, Ani DiFranco's "Both Hands" was the soundtrack of my life, often providing the background music to my West 4th Street dorm room as I stared blankly at my Mac contemplating what to write. Because of this, it almost goes without saying that I was overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia upon entering the theatre for Ethan Downing's Coffee & Fools, where this familiar song filled the apartment set, one complete with an iBook center stage. For a brief moment, I could sincerely feel myself as the inhabitant of this a space—a space filled with iconic details of the current generation of twentysomethings.
The content of this play indeed suits this environment. Coffee & Fools focuses on Brian, a struggling aspiring writer still conflicted over a breakup with his last girlfriend, Debbie. This play begins with Brian's roommate, Nicole, returning to the apartment to inform Brian that she has seen the now-engaged Debbie that afternoon and that Debbie wishes Brian would call her. This initiates a reopening of this old wound for Brian and ushers Debbie back into the foreground of Brian's life. The suggestion is made that Debbie has changed from her former ways and Nicole coerces Brian into a confrontation both with Debbie and with her artist fiancé, Spence. At this impromptu encounter, Debbie reveals that she still cares deeply for Brian, and that she is tortured daily by the guilt she feels for what she has done to Brian. It is also strongly implied that Nicole, too, has unresolved feelings for Brian. It is this love quadrangle that is at the heart of the conflict in the play.
The play's central theme is meant to be "Can people change?"—a theme supposedly thrown into relief by these romantic tensions. Unfortunately, the stakes of these interpersonal controversies never feel quite high enough to solve such a poignant thematic question. Brian and Nicole argue as passionately over tampons as they do over whether Brian should call Debbie. Nicole, although clearly attracted to Brian, never allows the audience to see a strong enough case for why she should be with him; the best evidence we have is that she has known him for a long time and that she has a stable enough job to support his writing. Debbie has clearly committed some serious relationship crime, but by the time the details of it are revealed to the audience, it appears to pale in light of the nearly three scenes of build-up.
The only character who seems really worthy of our sympathy is Brian, portrayed by Jared Morgenstern. He is both fixated on the past and desperate to come to terms with it so that he might find closure and move on. Morgenstern plays this dichotomy well; he is always a regular guy (never melodramatic or directly self-pitying) but one who distinctly feels the weight of his life experience bearing down on him. It is easy to root for Brian, as he is portrayed to be just like any one of us.
It is this mirroring of the actual life of a mid-20s individual that is both the play's greatest hindrance and its ultimate triumph. This holds the play back because it is often difficult to see clearly what the big deal is. The problems the characters face all seem to be surmountable ones, and they are all too young to be at their last chance for anything. Brian and his fellow lovelorn twentysomethings are precisely like us—like me—members of a generation used to getting precisely what they want with little or no struggle. When faced with something, such as the affections of another person, that proves too much of a challenge, we often crumple. We frequently prefer to feel sorry for ourselves and curse our fate than attempt to fight back against the circumstances. This play highlights characters who are so self-focused that they cannot look around them and see that those closest to them are suffering just as much as they are, and that these others are enduring the same types of problems. These characters come off as unsympathetic and shallow because of this.
On the other hand, these characters can only be seen as self-indulgent insomuch as they are like any one of us—they are patently realistic. All four of these individuals clearly embody and reflect different aspects of what it is to be this age in this city at this moment in time. Brian was such a likable character to me because he was so similar to me, struggling before the screen of his Mac, hoping that the right emo-pop-rock songs will inspire him to write that great combination of words which will change his life and make him a real writer. The other three characters, then, possess the potential to reflect other audience members' lives back at them, and in this manner, become worthy of consideration, and even meaningful, to them.
And in that, this play is a great achievement. As Hamlet said, "...the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature." This play effectively reflects what it is to be young at this moment—it is, in a real sense, to be a fool, and certainly one who is addicted to coffee. And it is to find oneself in a constant struggle to change—and to remain the same.