Ah, the '90s. The American 1990s, to be specific. A prosperous decade squished between the end of the cold war and the tragedy of 9/11. The last great decade, some have called it, with more than a little whiff of nostalgia. Some of the longing is financial – the economy was growing impressively and unemployment was dramatically low. Then there’s the technology argument – yes, we had cellphones and the Internet, but social media and connectivity didn’t have a stranglehold on our every waking hour. On the media front, papers and magazines were thriving and while gossip reporting abounded, it was a kinder, less intrusive method of reporting. Of course, some point to the '90s as being the last great hurrah for sales of recorded music, a time before digital downloading decimated the industry.
However, for many people, when they think of the glory days of the '90s, they think about film and TV — the now iconic shows and movies loved as fiercely as an outdated but moderately presentable favorite sweater we still get a kick out of wearing. A sweater that feels, well, like an old friend. And yes, I use the word "friend" here purposefully, because…as Chandler Bing would say…could there BE a more beloved or influential '90s TV show than the hangout comedy Friends? And when it comes to movies, was there a more “aren’t they adorable” real-life '90s pair of pals than the team of Matt and Ben of Good Will Hunting Oscar glory? While the acronym "BFF" may not have caught fire until a decade later, there’s no doubt that those of us enamored of big and small screens in the '90s held the notion of besties near and dear.
So it’s no wonder that these real and fictional mates have become fodder for the imagination of theater makers who dined on that decade's pop culture. What is a wonder, and a coincidental one at that, is that two shows are presently running in Houston, reintroducing us to these folks in decidedly alternative treatments.
As the first line of the Friends theme song, "I’ll Be There For You," is pumped in over the sound system at Cone Man Running’s production of Insomnia Café (FYI, the original title for Friends), the obvious happens. We can’t help ourselves. We hear "So no one told you life was gonna be this way…" and instinctively, in sitcom Pavlovian fashion, we collectively “clap, clap, clap, clap, clap” in time to the song. It’s this type of in-your-bones familiarity that playwright Breanna Bietz is counting on. She needs us to have lived, breathed and laughed at Friends over the years to make her show work. To get all the line references and inside jokes she’ll be throwing at us. To get what the characters are putting down.
And what they are putting down is strange, to say the least. The crux of Insomnia Café is that a couple of unhinged Friends fans have decided to kiss the hardships of reality good-bye and instead live as the characters on the TV show inside their facsimile lavender-doored and balconied apartment. There’s Man (Travis Ammons), who takes on the roles of Joey and Ross, and a variously bewigged Woman (Jenna Morris), playing Monica, Rachel and Phoebe. The problem is, they don’t have a Chandler. Man has tried to play him in the past, to little effect. So they have no choice but to find a third person to join their cult.
And that’s where the play opens, with the kidnapping of an unsuspecting soon-to-be Chandler named Dwyer (Brian Chambers). Problem is, Dwyer’s not really a Friends fan. He’s only seen the show twice and can’t follow along with the pairs’ riffing and referencing as they act out episode bits in character — everything from Rachel in her season-one wedding dress to Joey auditioning for a Summer’s Eve commercial. Plus Dwyer’s terrified of the gun Man is holding to his head and the Taser both Man and Woman keep using on him to make sure he plays along.
Bietz bombards us with lots of nifty Friends facts as Man and Woman try to bring Dwyer/Chandler up to speed. Did we know that Courteney Cox was supposed to play Rachel? Or that it was Matt LeBlanc’s idea to make Joey a dimwit? Or that Phoebe only had triplets on the show because Lisa Kudrow was pregnant during filming? It’s an enjoyable enough trivial pursuit waltz, but the memories grow somewhat tiresome when the trio sits down to watch all ten seasons of Friends, affording us audio clips of iconic moment after moment. But the indoctrination does work for Dwyer. Not only does he take on a kind of “Friendly” Stockholm syndrome, becoming a rabidly committed Chandler, but his newfound obsession with make-believe threatens to take over the group as he imposes his own ideas of how the game should be played.
Sounds like fine enough quirky fun, right? Well, it would have been had Bietz figured out what kind of story she was trying to tell; had director Lex Lass not pushed our suspension of disbelief past the breaking point; and had certain performances actually come close to creating the impressions needed to pull off the characters.
Dark comedy is the way the show has been described by the creative team, and it would have been just that if Bietz hadn’t added a decidedly disturbing element that takes the show from being funny in a dark way to actually being just unnervingly dark. From the moment we see Woman, she is covered in fading bruises. Huge ones. On her face, on her exposed midsection and elsewhere. It isn’t until deep into the show that Bietz lets the audience in on where the injuries come from.
Turns out Woman isn’t such a willing participant in the Friends game after all. Man is making her do it, apparently sometimes with his fists. And in one fell misplaced swoop, Bietz turns this crazy but relatively harmlessly amusing tale of psycho fans into one of upsetting psychological and physical abuse. In our minds anyway, as it’s not like the show actually ever deals with the issue. Instead, the comedy continues along as if this were just another regular old dark comedy. Sure, there's some comeuppance in the twist ending, but not nearly enough to justify the major left turn in tone that leaves the audience wondering exactly what kind of show they're meant to be watching in the first place.
Lass does an ample job of navigating the regular action in the small space, but anytime the script calls for violence or mere physicality, Lass lets the air out of the tires. We watch over and over again as characters are “restrained” with flimsy pieces of rope tied around their midsections, leaving hands and feet free. Are we to believe that in this kind of situation a terrified kidnappee or thwarted kidnapper couldn’t struggle free with one wave of a limb? Similarly, attempts at fleeing are ill-timed and disappointing. A nutty premise doesn’t mean we don’t deserve the semblance of reality onstage.
Of the cast, Jenna Morris fares the best, with an amusingly clenched-jaw, slightly haughty Rachel impression. But her Phoebe is blandly unrecognizable and aside from one stab at Monica at the start of the play, I’m not sure she ever attempts the character again. Travis Ammons, on the other hand, manages to pull off neither Joey nor Ross in any convincing fashion, making it at times impossible to know who he was playing. Brian Chambers delivers a respectful enough Chandler and has some winning moments at the end of the play, but has a rough go making us believe that he's a scared abducted victim to begin with.
“Who will be there for me when the rain starts to fall?” asks Woman as she finally contemplates leaving. Who will be there to help this show and this production, we think in return. In fairness, Bietz is a young writer with only one other staged effort under her belt. Plus there are some truly good ideas about our obsession and relationship with sitcoms in her script. And after all, not every writer hits it outta the park on her first try…well…that is, unless you're Matt and Ben. But wait, was that original, 1997 Oscar-winning script for Good Will Hunting REALLY the work of Matt and Ben? There were whisperings, after all. How on earth could a couple of unknown Boston actors, barely out of high school, have written such a sophisticated script?
These rumors are at the heart of the 2002 comedy Matt and Ben, written by a then relatively unknown Mindy Kaling and her best friend, Brenda Withers, as an Off Broadway vehicle for themselves. The show opens with a fully formed Good Will Hunting script falling from the sky into Ben’s apartment and into Ben's and Matt’s struggling hands. They know it’s a great story. Really great. Do they go with it or do they continue trying to “adapt” Catcher in the Rye by typing the entire novel word for word into script form?
In its inaugural production, newly formed Rogue Productions has taken this frothy but utterly amusing script and shown us that superb acting, set design and direction can elevate something fun into something artistically substantial as well.
The action is set entirely in Ben’s apartment, wonderfully crafted with shabby bro design esthetic by Rachael Drews. Here Matt (Rogue co-founder/artistic director Rachel Logue), the responsible and smart one, and Ben (Rogue co-founder/artistic director Chelsea Ryan McCurdy), the dumb but good-looking, charismatic, frat-boyish one, argue over what to do about the script and who will play which part. Along the way the two best pals also work out some of their friendship baggage and jealously/resentment issues.
Both Logue and McCurdy are a wonder to watch. Mercifully eschewing too strong a Boston accent, the women inhabit their male personas with perfect dudeness. Hair braided up and clad in dress shirt, chinos and runners, Logue’s Matt is jumpy and high-strung even when he’s manspreading on Ben’s secondhand couch. Her long, dark hair worn down under a ballcap, McCurdy’s Ben has the swagger of a young man with more self-confidence than he deserves. Whether it’s effortlessly popping the top off a bottle using a table top or throwing Doritos at Ben, McCurdy moves with impish fluidity. Just when you think one or the other might be nailing the character more, you realize that both these actors are selling the hell outta the show and thrilling us with their performances in the process.
Boys will be boys in the script, and so of course we’re going to get a fight scene. Fight choreography consultant Luke Fedell and director Julia Traber make sure it’s a good one. But the energy of that moment seems like just another treat when paired up with the high-energy and humor-filled direction Traber offers all through the show. This is the second time this season we’ve seen Traber display an excellent ear and feel for young adult characters — her work on Dry Land at Mildred’s Umbrella being her other triumph. Never allowing her cast here to overdo the impressions or go so far into playing men that they become caricatures, Traber keeps the feeling as absolutely realistic as possible. This may be a spoof, but under her wing, Matt and Ben feels more like a documentary that just happens to be satirically funny and weird.
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In fact, the only thing in this show that gives me pause is how it fits into Rogue’s mandate to bring us theater that “looks like Houston – thoughtful, connected and diverse.” Yes, the show features two female actors onstage. And a female director. That’s good. We have lots of women in Houston. And yes, Matt and Ben did have one person of color on its writing team. Diversity is certainly an element of life in this city. However, I’m not sure how a comedy about famous male actors from Boston reflects our experience or our population here in Houston.
But hey, with a production this excellent, I’ll give them a pass. This time. After all, even a critic can do the friendly thing once in a while, right?
Insomnia Café runs through January 28 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For tickets call 281-972-5897 or visit conemanrunning.com $15 to $18
Matt & Ben runs through January 29 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy. For tickets visit rogueproductionshtx.com $17 - $37