Ross and Rachel have been a couple that everyone sees as a team in James Fritz’ Ross and Rachel at 59E59 Theaters a drama with comedic elements that is a part of the Brits Off Broadway season. The title perhaps is an ironic reference to the Friends duo, Ross and Rachel (played by David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston). However, without Schwimmer’s and Aniston’s good will, charm, and likeability, this couple is a dark duo who snipe and swipe at each other while convincing themselves they’re in love.
Fritz has conceived of his Ross and Rachel as a twosome who “appear” to be the ying and yang of a positive relationship whole that perhaps is evolving toward some pinnacle of light. However, as the play progresses, the signs glare in neon that this “togetherness” is anything but healthful. By the conclusion, we learn that not only is theirs a superficial bonding that has suffered the “slings and arrows” of their own untruthfulness, they have misled each other and themselves in order to fulfill cultural standards that others have projected upon them and expected them to live up. They only could adhere to these in outer fashion. Internally, all is a morass of confused memories, notions and imaginings of love that their reality could not sustain.
The 55 minute play starring Molly Vevers in a solo performance as the opposite ends of the partnership between Ross and Rachel offers up both characters for viewing. Overall the production provides an interesting perspective on coupling and de-coupling, on trust and disloyalty, surreptitious feelings kept hidden in partnerships, love expressed and mouthed because it has to be, and about depression and boredom that comes with tenuous relationships where one partner is not forthcoming and the other is too insensitive and prepossessed to understand.
Fritz’s writing is at times compelling and energetic. Through the direction and staging of Thomas Martin it becomes confusing, illogical, monochromatic, and amorphous, especially when other characters are introduced and spoken to without a break in the tone, pacing or emphasis of delivery. Yes, the characters’ sameness is present, on the one hand, but on the other, it is their distinctions which are the more fascinating and revelatory. These could have been manifested with greater specificity in Vever’s portrayals and through Martin’s direction.
The absence of this vital distinctiveness (which doesn’t have to be emphatic, but could be cleverly discrete), leads to a curious effect. The presentation is that we are viewing what may be “heavily meaningful,” yet the staging is gimmicky and without the logical intention to elucidate the characterizations and themes with clarity and purpose. For example, Vivers initially sits before a reflecting pool (symbolic of the duo, perhaps reflecting parts of each other within their relationship and their apparent unity). The pool then becomes a trash receptacle into which Vivers stands, pours her coffee, scoops up, and drinks from (by this point the coffee is in the water), and spits out, repeating the process three more times. The effect and meaning is unclear and the logic doesn’t relate with power, though the shock value is present.
Do the actions represent the foulness and frustration of a relationship that is dying? The director’s and actor’s choices don’t quite enhance but indeed distract from Vivers’ overall fine, but under-modulated portrayals of the two characters. Rather than to express the dynamic uniqueness of Ross and Rachel, Vivers conveys both as if in the same context with little difference, relying on Fritz’s dialogue, a weakness of the direction primarily. Although this might represent that Ross and Rachel have been glued together (by themselves, cultural and social expectations and the daily drudgery of living), their differences do not abide. They should. If the actor and director had made more specific choices, the character portrayals would have been broadened and strengthened. Even by pausing between the character’s change up in dialogue, if even for a nano second more, there might have been a solid representation that these are two unique beings, and each is chafing at their “togetherness.”
The poignancy of what is happening between them should be heartfelt, but remains opaque. Their push-pull to the edge of their professed love is only strong if we recognize that they are each seeking ways of escape from the sameness of who they’ve become, perhaps through voice changes, pacing changes, tonal changes unique to each character or something else. This is especially necessary toward the middle of the play which suspends and morphs time and place, past and present. It would have been exhilarating to linger momentarily with quiet, sounds of silence between the characters. This might have been the respiration the play needs to magnify its exhortations about partnerships that are unfulfilled, unproductive, nullifying, partnerships that cannot hold up to the sameness of routine existence.
With such modifications in portrayals, Vivers would have strengthened the impact of Ross’ cruel but necessary evolution. As Ross is dying off from a relationship that has been destroying him all along, Rachel gets to recognize that it is he alone who must experience what he goes through. She can have no part in it, however guilty she may feel and however much he wants her to share his consciousness. They are alone and whether they wanted to see it or not, they always were.
Ross and Rachel is being performed at 59E59 Theaters until June 5.