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How To Make Friends And Then Kill Them

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Katya Campbell, Jen Ponton, and Keira Keeley.
Photo by Hal Horowitz.
One of the defining theatrical images of the enduring love between sisters is that of Celie and Nettie playing their hand-clapping game in the film adaptation and, later, in the musical version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. How could you not choke up with heart-felt emotion?

So, how sly is it that Halley Feiffer has co-opted this same image as a defining one for How To Make Friends And Then Kill Them, her off-kilter and darkly comic new play about codependent sisters and their misfit pal, now on view at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater? You may choke up from this as well, though your emotions are likely to shift between laughter and bemusement as the play unfolds over the course of 90 minutes.

When we first meet the sisters—Ada (the pretty, self-absorbed one) and Sam (a talented sketch artist and Ada's adoring acolyte)—they are pre-pubescent girls, more-or-less raising themselves while their alcoholic and neglectful mother is out on a permanent binge. Theirs is a love/hate relationship, born of a mutual and desperate need for familial companionship that doesn't entirely prevent them from hurting one another, but that always causes them to stop short of any permanent rift. They are like conjoined twins who have no option but to get along. The hand-clapping game and their sharing of sock bracelets symbolize their bond.

The only other person they allow to enter into their lives is Dorrie, who is such a mess that she poses no threat whatsoever to their fragile self-images. The friendless Dorrie, who suffers from precocious puberty, early onset fibromyalgia, and "stress-related childhood acne," is thrilled when Ada decides to adopt her as her BFF, despite the cavalier way in which Ada treats her.

As time carries the girls from childhood to their teenage years and into young adulthood, the three move into permanent orbit about one another. Despite the jealousy that Dorrie's presence as an outside intruder engenders in Sam, the two of them become friends as well when they go off to college together, while Ada pursues her dream of becoming an actress.

For a while, it does seem the trio may overcome the odds and find a means of balancing and supporting one another. But theirs has always been a precarious relationship at best, like runners in a three-legged race. When Sam is hurt in an accident that confines her to a wheelchair, the center can no longer hold. By now, Sam's dreams of becoming an artist have been dashed, and Ada has fallen into her mother's pattern of alcohol abuse. Only the more selfless Dorrie remains hanging on for dear life, trying as hard as she can to keep the triumvirate going—until it is no longer possible.

Ms. Feiffer, the playwright, is also a successful New York actress with a résumé that includes performances in similarly off-the-wall plays (Kenneth Lonergan's Medieval Play and the Broadway revival of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves). She is a sharp and clever wordsmith, who uses recurrent lines and repeated actions to create shifts in meaning when delivered by different character. Watch what happens with the ritual of the innocently playful sock bracelets later in the play.

Kip Fagan's direction and the acting by Katya Campbell as Ada, Keira Keeley as Sam, and Jen Ponton as Dorrie are first-rate throughout. Even though How To Make Friends And Then Kill Them paints its picture in broad brushstrokes and is drenched in the stuff of darkest humor, it does tell a most compelling and psychologically honest tale.

How To Make Friends And Then Kill Them
Through November 24
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
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