Friends Don't Let Friends
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 3, 2011
Less Than Rent Theatre's new show Friends Don't Let Friends is a supremely accomplished and well-crafted dramedy that represents cutting-edge indie theater at its finest. It's all the more impressive when you know that most of the artists involved are in college or recent graduates; LTR is not even two years old! The talent here is palpable, and it's exciting to anticipate what these folks will create as they grow and develop.
But for now we need only contemplate this excellent play. Friends Don't Let Friends takes place on the set of a sitcom called "Reel Deal"—a hit sitcom, now in its fourth season, that centers around George, a young filmmaker who has just snagged an Academy Award nomination for a documentary he made, and Hannah, his live-in girlfriend who has long been his chief researcher and collaborator. The set is the living room and kitchen of their apartment, and it will remind you of the main locale of so many young artsy New Yorker sitcoms' sets, from Mad About You to Friends to Seinfeld (and probably newer examples that I'd name if I still kept up with TV these days).
The other recurring characters on "Reel Deal" are Brad, George's producer—kind of a goofy next-door neighbor guy: Kramer, but better looking; Jules, George's sister, who also collaborates on the films; and Beth, George's new quirky, ditsy personal assistant. And then there are the current guest characters: Ellie, another documentary researcher, and Isaac, a genius filmmaker ex-pal of George's who is back in town to make a new film...about the exact same subject as George's current one. Complications and modualted hilarity ensue.
The thing is, playwright James Presson and his collaborators here utterly and absolutely NAIL sitcoms. Their rhythms, their tones, their gimmicks, their tricks, their soulless soulfulness—all of this is portrayed with a savvy felicity that's close enough to the real thing to be eerie but still removed sufficiently to function as parody/commentary. We see three more-or-less complete episodes of "Reel Deal" in the course of Friends Don't Let Friends—a potentially dicey challenge that Presson and company pull off spectacularly well.
In between the episodes, and during the commercial breaks, we meet the actors who play these roles. Our main subject is Laura, the woman who plays Hannah. Her father was a famous "legitimate" actor and unspoken pressures and expectations clearly exist within their troubled relationship. Plus, Laura thinks that Hannah's character is changing ("People on the Internet don't like me," she worries); maybe her character is being written out of the series? There's an identity crisis plaguing Laura, one with a strong metaphysical aspect. But our time with Laura is fleeting and our glimpses of her and her colleagues are brief and impressionistic. And tantalizing: I think I would have liked to see more of the "real" people's stories in Friends Don't Let Friends; I wonder if the impact of the final scenes might have been heightened if the audience had a bit more background.
Throughout all of these "real" scenes, a crew of five silent stagehands stay busy and in the background. Some of the actors suggest that the TV show they are making is not much more than a trifle—patently true as we watch it unfold; yet the disconnect between the actors and the stagehands is unsettling.
The play's director is Rachel Buethe, who realizes Presson's script and the scripts-within-the-script with incisiveness and precision. Designers are Caite Hevner (set), Amanda Brooklyn (costumes), Ryan Seelig (lighting), and Gifford Williams (sound); all make invaluable contributions, creating a world for the play that is familiar yet filled with artifice.
An ensemble of a dozen actors perform the work exceptionally well. Andrew Deeb, Tommy Hettrick, Evan Kincade, Melissa Mickens and Nicole Roberts are the crew; they shine particularly in the moments leading up to the first scene in Act Two, dressing and cleaning the set to a melancholy soundtrack that sums up a lot of what the play seems to be about. As the guest stars, Emma March Barash (Ellie) and Jason Zeren (Isaac) manage the interesting trick of not quite blending in with the rest of their colleagues. As the regulars, Ashlynn Alexander (Beth), Becca Ballenger (Hannah), Cory Asinofsky (George), Jenna Grossano (Jules), and Will Turner (Brad), achieve something just as subtle, creating a cohesive "family" in the TV segments and a less tightly-knit but clearly professional team in the "real" segments.
This is, in all, an impressive production. Presson and crew nail the sitcom oeuvre so well that I fear we may lose them to a network should some television executive turn up during the run of Friends Don't Let Friends. I wish them success, but I'd hate for the indie theater scene to lose them so soon. They've got more on their minds than a weekly helping of comfort food; this is as rewarding and nutritious a theatrical stew as you'll find anywhere in NYC right now.