Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Meg's New Friend

Photo/Deanna Frieman

It's hard to live in New York City without the taste of leather on your tongue. After all, with the constant cultural shifts of this melting pot, if your foot isn't already in your mouth, it will be soon. Even with the best intentions--like Samuel (Michael Solomon), a lawyer--it's only a matter of time before you accidentally call a girl "honey" or a black man "brother," and all of a sudden you're sexist, racist, or both. Some people, like Sam's girlfriend of three years, Megan (Megan McQuillan), avoid the issue by covering "safe" topics--like a Philadelphia production of Wicked--while others, like Ty (Damon Gupton) use yoga to transcend. Some, like Sam's older sister, Rachel (Mary Cross), are too self-deprecating and desperate to notice the way they belittle others (like her lover, Ty).

For Meg's New Friend, being PC is a double-edged sword; playwright Blair Singer boldly tackles the issue dead-on, but this also makes him overly explicit, and ends up objectifying his supporting cast. Ty is a burst of fresh air, charming in his confident passivity, and seductively honest, even when that involves hitting on his current lover's best friend and admitting, in the process, that all relationships should have a three-month expiration date. On the other hand, Sam--no matter how well-acted by the capable Solomon--is the all-too familiar asshole who picks fights just to be dramatic. Singer asks us what leads us to connect with people--for instance, is it because we want to diversify and have a black friend?--only to announce that we can't always choose. (Hence the pending foot-in-mouth.)

The play works best when it steps back from easy labels and deals with taking a hard look at what's behind those words. In that, it's a smart move to make Megan a far-from-hard-hitting television reporter, as she knows the importance not only of words but of the images that are conjured up behind them, the intents. ("You have to have the image. Makes it real. Present. Without a photo, the audience can't connect.") She wants Ty as a friend--her first black friend, and also her first male friend--but they both immediately see each other as more. The strongest scenes are those in which characters evaluate themselves: Ty confessing his attraction to sad girls, Rachel admitting her desperation (Jewish, single, and 38, she sees herself as "invisible"), and Megan coming to terms with her attraction to Ty.

The script, at about eighty minutes, is tight, and that has unfortunately led the characters to be a bit stiff--the plot has them grow, but to see them do so is like watching them get prodded by a shoehorn. Thankfully, while director Mark Armstrong struggles to establish his characters in the early scenes (they frequently lock up when they're not talking, or aimlessly fidget with their empty wine glasses), the play opens up about halfway through, especially for Cross, who really ties the conceit of the play together when she attempts to condemn her former best friend with a canned speech, only to find that the words don't match up with the reality. ("Yeah," she says, "it doesn't feel right.")

Singer's last play at Manhattan Theater Source, The Most Damaging Wound, had an intensity and a camaraderie that managed to make the words themselves beside the point. The problem he runs into with Meg's Best Friend is that now the words are almost entirely the point, and while his ear for natural speech is still there, it feels like he's constantly skirting the issue--which is perhaps a little too PC. (His comparisons to The Seagull certainly don't do him any favors.) The play itself is fun enough, and it is nice to see Gupton avoid stereotypes, but Meg's New Friend is more of the fair-weather sort than of the best.

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