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The End of Longing

Theatre Review by David Hurst - June 5, 2017

Jennifer Morrison and Matthew Perry
Photo by Joan-Marcus

The clash between "art" and "commerce" has rarely been on the kind of painful display it is now at the Lucille Lortel in the form of MCC Theater's eye-rolling production of Matthew Perry's The End of Longing. Having had its world premiere last spring at the Playhouse Theatre in London to scathing reviews, there can be little doubt the critical reception made no impression on the powers that be at MCC. What caught their attention, no doubt, was the fact The End of Longing – with Perry as its star – became the most successful production in the history of the Playhouse Theatre. Ever. In its short 3-month run last year the show sold 62,000 tickets, 12,000 of those to first-time theatergoers, so it should come as no surprise that The End of Longing closed in London on May 5, 2016, and was subsequently announced for MCC's next season on May 10, 2016. Clearly, money talks – which is a good thing since the rest of the "talking" in MCC's production is stupefying.

The contrived plot finds Jack (Perry) sitting at a bar in present day Los Angeles when best friends Stephanie (Jennifer Morrison), a high-priced escort, and Stevie (Sue Jean Kim), a pharmaceutical rep, arrive for a girl's night out. Jack, an alcoholic photographer, is already drunk but that doesn't stop him from hitting on both women, proposing a three-way with them. Everything about their exchange defies credulity and Perry's strange, halted delivery (which continues through the play) feels manufactured and inauthentic. Unbelievably, Stephanie's curiosity is peaked by Jack, but Stevie is desperately waiting to hear from the construction worker she slept with earlier that afternoon, Jeffrey. So guess who walks into the bar to join them? You guessed it, Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who just happens to be Jack's best friend. Unsurprisingly, it all goes downhill from here.

Matthew Perry and Quincy Dunn Baker
Photo by Joan-Marcus

Perry's writing reflects the kind of bad sitcom sensibility where clichés predominate and characters remain, at best, two-dimensional. What follows on Derek McLane's revolving set made of empty liquor bottles (no, I'm not kidding) is a series of scenes in bedrooms and bars in which these four damaged people pair off into two dysfunctional couples. Jack and Stephanie argue about his alcoholism and her work as a hooker, the latter of which Perry's writing treats at best as glib and at worst as misogynistic. Meanwhile, Stevie and Jeffrey deal with her incredible neuroticism and his sweet-natured view of the world. Hearing her biological clock ticking, Stevie is desperate to get pregnant and Jeffrey, a rugged hunk of a man, happily obliges her. It's the birth of their child – in a ludicrous labor & delivery scene – that becomes the fulcrum for the conclusion of Perry's play and Dunn-Baker as Jeffrey almost saves the piece with his earnest, blue-collar appeal.

Ultimately, The End of Longing becomes a piece about whether damaged and addicted people have the capacity to change and Perry comes down squarely on the side of the affirmative, putting a bow on his hope-filled ending just to make sure we get the message. It's a well-intentioned effort as pop-culture psychology goes, but it's embarrassing as a serious piece of theatre. Perry and director Lindsay Posner have worked on trimming the play from it's London incarnation, shaving it down to 1' 40" at the Lortel from its 2' 30" running time on the West End. But one has to wonder whether Perry's decision to play an alcoholic in The End of Longing, in light of his own, well-publicized battles with opioids and alcohol, is a brave statement as part of his recovery or self-indulgence on the part of a celebrity.

In reading the cast's biographies in the program, it's impossible to miss the fact Perry doesn't mention his iconic role of Chandler Bing on Friends, the juggernaut television comedy which ran for ten seasons (1994-2004) on NBC and changed the lives and financial fortunes of everyone involved in its production. Understandably Perry wants to distance himself from the show, but erasing it from his resume isn't the answer. It actually prompts a question: by starring in The End of Longing himself and thereby capitalizing on his fame from Friends, is he exploiting himself or his audiences? Based on the play on display at the Lortel, some might suggest it's both.

The End of Longing
Through July 1
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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