Having graduated college less than two months ago, right now I’m at one of those points in everyone’s life when the real friends start to distinguish themselves from the people I will never speak to again. We’ve all had the experience of being a friend (with a lowercase “f”) as opposed to being a Friend (with the cultish connotations of the capital “F”), and we all know there are certain types of personalities that have different kinds of dynamics with their friend situation.
What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends is a hilariously stark exploration of that distinctly contemporary phenomenon, a play that breaks down how we view our friends into its more preposterous basic form. Larry Kunofsky’s remarkable play is as funny and absurd as it is poignant to modern adult life, one that sees through all the bullshit and gets down to the nitty-gritty.
Kunofsky is not one to treat the subject with a situation that bears any semblance to reality. In addition to breaking down the fourth wall in a manner closer to Brighton Beach Memoirs’ Eugene Jerome than to Our Town’s Stage Manager, Kunofsky has developed a social hierarchy for the friends situation that is obviously satirical, but comes to dominate every moment in the play. The upper-case Friends have a personal ranking system that updates on a month-by-month basis. The Friends can mark demotions in those rankings by clearing their throats, and, if necessary, can occasionally demand that a fellow Friend “be honest” when an isolated problem slips through the cracks. There’s also the prole-like “friends,” those who are sometimes invited to parties but not allowed to obtain any of the perks of being a Friend.
What this thoroughly developed system leaves out is any trace of individuality, and the ultimate inability of a network of friends to cope with reality with their own absurd mechanisms leads the Friends absolutely haywire. If the structure of the Friends is meant to stand in for a more realistic structure of friends, it is here where the play transcends its own machinations. Has today’s bourgeois society become so isolated, even among those closest to us, that we have set up a social system that robs us of our true character?
Of course, the play also works on its own internal terms. The breakdown of the Friends is in part orchestrated by Matt (Todd D’Amour) the character referred to in the play’s title. Matt is a violent, gruff individual who’s grainy voice rivals that of Christian Bale’s Batman. Despite his general misanthropy, Matt still has human needs, which lead him to at least try to build a relationship with Celia (the hilarious Carrie Keranen).
Celia is Matt’s polar opposite, someone who is everyone’s #1 Friend. Yet, she shares Matt’s inability to relate to other people on a much deeper level. The fact that Matt and Celia’s perspectives meet at opposite ends of the spectrum is probably what draws them together, even though their relationship is turbulent from the start.
Susan Louise O’Conner and Josh Lefkowitz serve as an effective greek chorus of friends and Friends, each cast in several roles ranging from the alcoholic Friend with a plummeting ranking, the lawyer who keeps his Friends from his cynical wife, and the hopelessly cheesy losers doomed to eternal friend status. O’Conner and Lefkowitz display remarkable range in their eclectic roles, even if some of their performances succumb to the play’s more cartoonish tendencies.
The highlight of the cast is without a doubt Amy Staats’ Enid, a mentally unstable but consistently lovely woman who is fully aware of her “friend” status, and uses narrating as therapy. Though Staats looks like Ana Gasteyer, her performance more closely resembles Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher in her overwhelming eagerness to impress and the embarrassment that ensues. She’s as funny and sympathetic as any quirky female character you’ll see on the stage.
What to Do When You Hate All Your Friends lets those damn rankings and rules overtake the play in the second half, to the point where the play’s initial charm begins to sag. But while dramatically the play eventually loses its appeal, the gags and laughs remain throughout the evening. Even in the clunky second act you can get by with its characters having perpetual “Meltdowns,” the coup Matt stages in the Friends system, or Enid’s constant unprovoked interjections.
The play could have been a greater success if it focused more on its armchair sociology than on giving the play-by-play of its own set of rules. Nonetheless, the intelligence of Kunofsky’s breakdown of the plight of 21st century adult friendship remains the theme that sticks with you in the long haul. After seeing What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends, you’ll start applying the show’s rules to your own friend situation soon enough. Don’t be surprised if it fits surprisingly well.
Through August 23 at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row. What To Do When Your Hate All Your Friends is written by Larry Kunofsky. Directed by Jacon Krueger. Sound design by Ryan Maeker. Set design by Niluka Hotaling. Lighting Design by Gina Scherr. Costume Design by Melissa Trn. Photos by Martin R. Miller