Oh, Matthew Perry. I thought we were friends.
As someone who spent the better part of my 20s and 30s tuned into the better part of his 20s and 30s, I arrived with a fair measure of residual affection to the Greenwich Village theater where The End of Longing, written by and starring Perry, is having its New York debut.
But even before the lights dimmed, it was evident that Perry didn’t trust audiences or critics to evaluate the show as the work of an emerging playwright who also happens to have earned a million dollars per episode on a popular 1990s sitcom. His lengthy bio in the program lists 10 television credits, including an Emmy-nominated turn on The West Wing and hosting duties for the 2005 ESPY awards. Several films are noted, as well as a 2003 London stage booking in David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. (The director of that show, Lindsay Posner, is again at the helm here.) What is not mentioned is Perry’s 10-season, career-establishing run on Friends. This is the Playbill version of ghosting a relationship. (Or, for Chandler Bing devotees: Transferring to Yemen.)
Rather than acknowledge that his Friends fame may have cracked opened the stage door, we are asked to forget an elemental part of his past and see Perry as a playwright who landed West End and Off-Broadway productions of The End of Longing on the strength of its text.
Would that it were so. But what unfolded on an intimate, liquor-bottle-lined stage began with the tired trope of two 30-something women griping about dating, texting, and the shriveling of baby-making eggs, all the while stating what they, as longtime friends, could reasonably be expected to know about one another. “I’m being dramatic. I always get dramatic when I’m out of Zoloft,” says Stevie (Sue Jean Kim), who works in pharmaceuticals, to her pal Stephanie (Once Upon a Time‘s Jennifer Morrison), an escort with her meter off for the night.
They are soon joined by Jack (Perry), an alcoholic and overconfident photographer, and Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker), a dim and sweet construction worker who is both Stevie’s hookup and Jack’s best friend.
The couplings that follow develop free of chemistry or logic. Stephanie talks about her job as if sex work were as carefree a career choice as, say, dog walking and promptly brings home this stray. Jack is, at least at first, not at all put-off by how she earns her living, and brags to Jeffrey that getting a freebie from an escort is like being comped to a Springsteen show.
Meanwhile Stevie leaps quickly from dating to pregnancy with her new beau — she has either intentionally waived contraception because of her aforementioned baby cravings, or she is the only pharmaceutical exec unfamiliar with how the pill works. Having established that the father-to-be is both dim and sweet, Perry writes them into a less layered version of Knocked Up. The only complications arise in her amniotic sac.
There are a few chuckles here, and some comfortingly familiar sarcasm — a strength of Perry’s, known to anyone who ever watched… oh nevermind. But for the most part Longing consists of four characters announcing feelings that these actors are likely skilled enough to register without many words. “This is so uncomfortable,” says the call girl to her date. “I mean, how uncomfortable are you right now?”
Where Perry’s script and performance does graze the truth is in two monologues that his character delivers about the grip and desperation of addiction. We know that Perry himself has struggled with, overcome, and since helped others to conquer addiction. Bringing that knowledge into the play makes this a richer experience, not a lesser one: Substance abuse consumes the anonymous barfly photographer as easily as it does the TV superstar. Perry has something to say on this topic, and I found myself wondering if The End of Longing might have better succeeded as a one-man show, with Perry pouring out the kind of honesty that Jack does in an AA meeting. It is asking a lot of a man who can’t be forthcoming in even his Playbill bio. But I imagine his friends would come along.