A Perfect Couple
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 20, 2008
There's a falseness at the core of Brooke Berman's A Perfect Couple, a play about the tangled connections between a couple who, not surprisingly, turn out not to be so perfect after all, and one of their oldest friends. It's not the imperfection of the couple that rings untrue—where's the story in a blissfully happy couple moving toward their wedding?—but the emotional bankruptcy of the play's central relationships, and the fact that it takes the characters 15 years (or even the 90 minutes the play runs) to realize that, although they may once have truly meant something to each other, they no longer have anything holding them together.
Amy and Isaac have been together 15 years, living in a house Isaac inherited in the country, and, at the age of 40, are about to get married. Although their dear friend Emma, visiting for the weekend, thinks they seem maybe a little unhappy, seem to be fighting constantly, she's assured by both that relationships are work; that negotiation and compromise are part of adult relationships; that Isaac and Amy have made the decision to move forward to the next step in their life, and that Emma, single at 40 and having tumultuous relationships with younger men, couldn't possibly understand. In fact, Amy's relationship (and occasionally Isaac's as well) with Emma seems to be primarily, and maddeningly, composed of urging Emma to grow up and settle down, to "will" herself into an adult relationship, to get serious about finding a real man and getting married—a project that Emma herself, though admittedly sometimes lonely, seems to have absolutely no interest in. In much the same way, Amy's relationship to Isaac seems to comprise backseat-driving his life along with their relationship, making every decision she can for him; Isaac's defense is retreating into a kind of willed emotional ignorance. Their young neighbor, Josh, a recent college graduate acting as a handyman for Isaac, serves as a kind of emotional touchstone for them all, acting with a simplicity and directness that underscores the detachment among the other three.
When Josh finds a diary of the house's deceased former owner, Isaac's much-loved stepmother, Amy reads it, only to be shattered by Coral's opinions on Amy, and on Isaac's relationships with both Amy and Emma. These revelations spark confrontations that peel away the surfaces of all the connections among the triangle—Amy and Emma, Amy and Isaac, Emma and Isaac—and cause them to re-evaluate their roles in one another's adult lives.
The play's focus on its friendships as much as, or more than, the central romantic pairing makes it unique—and I think there is a genuine story to be told about waking up to realize you've outlived old friendships, that the path in the road you've been going down isn't what you thought it was. But in order for the play to work, there needs to be some trace of genuine affection or love that's hidden that realization, some real sense of losing something that was once precious, some internally motivated discovery. Here, the work of discovery is done through the device of the diary—but even before the diary makes its appearance, there don't seem to be any bonds other than inertia actually holding these people together. Even a series of straight-to-the-audience monologues of emotional exposition don't add nuance or levels.
Amy admits to Josh that when they're together, they tend to mostly talk nostalgically about the past. For all Amy's supposed concern about Emma's life, not once does she seem genuinely concerned whether Emma is happy; instead, she gives romantic advice like telling Emma to hang out at bars where the drinks are expensive enough that any man who buys one for you must have a job. Isaac seems all too happy to jump on Amy's bandwagon when she's around, sticking up for neither himself nor Emma, and although he acts differently toward Emma when they're alone together, he doesn't apologize for his earlier behavior. Emma, for her part, seems merely baffled by the state of things between her two oldest friends—quizzical, but ultimately not stirring herself to investigate or worry about either one of them.
The production is elegant and well-executed, for the most part. Dana Eskelson as Amy does a particularly strong job of finding genuine moments in a character, and Elan Moss-Bachrach, as Josh, is a charming and funny straight man. But James Waterston as Isaac, playing a character who either is strikingly emotionally obtuse (his main response to anything complex is to say "I don't understand") or has adopted that pose as a defense mechanism, doesn't have a lot to work with. And Annie McNamara, as Emma, can be a little too stylized for such an otherwise realistic piece.
Neil Patel's set simply and cleverly evokes a welcoming country house, but the huge table at its center can be too much of an anchor for Maria Mileaf's staging, making the play feel static. And some of the play's most successful scenes are the few where they break out of the main locale, into an outdoors represented by either a bench and a tree, or a beautiful starry backdrop. In one of those scenes, Josh, the outsider haplessly drawn into the unfolding deterioration of the friendships, tells Amy that she seems to be kind of unhappy and looking for a way out of her relationship with Isaac, and maybe the diary is just a pretext she's using. It's a welcome moment of honesty—but it's also another moment where the characters are only belatedly catching up to the audience.
All of these characters, with the possible exception of Josh, are frustratingly lacking in self-awareness—of their own unhappiness, of their own desires, of their own states of mind—which means the emotional journeys in the play don't actually involve any kind of change, for good or for ill, but merely the characters coming to realize what's evident to the audience from the first scene of the play.