Matthew Perry, renowned for an insanely successful television comedy that doesn’t even need to be named, understandably wants to stretch himself. Good actors always do: think of Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses (not inappropriate in this case) or Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. In The End of Longing, Perry does just that, both as an actor and as playwright.
As the title implies, the subject is loneliness, but in the case of Jack (Perry), it is self-inflicted. Jack is a raging alcoholic, and while one may applaud Perry’s bravado in creating for himself a role so different from that of a friend, it is also a part that leaves little room for sympathy. From the moment he appears, Jack is ordering a drink, and the contours of his character become clear moments later, as he talks to two women out for a night together.
Jennifer Morrison’s blond, self-possessed Stephanie is trying to lend an ear and a shoulder to her companion Stevie (Sue Jean Kim), a bundle of paranoia, regret and fury. Stevie has not had a text from a man she slept with four hours earlier, and she insists that it’s bad behavior. Kim finds both the humor in the part and the raging insecurity—she’s the female counterpart to Jack, whose insecurity manifests itself in a more self-destructive way, though there’s nothing healthy about Stevie’s responses.
For her part, the elegant Stephanie appears to be a businesswoman who might work at a hedge fund. When Jack’s buddy Jeffrey shows up—a strapping, handsome Quincy Dunn-Baker—it turns out he is the man Stevie has slept with, so the men sit down and the ice begins to break. Unexpectedly, the equable Jeffrey is able to calm down Stevie, and Jack somehow connects with Stephanie.
Both men score that night, and the play then alternates between the two couples and their gradual attraction against the odds. After the first night, Jack cannot even recall that he is in Stephanie’s apartment and not his own. “All spinning rooms look the same,” he explains. When he discovers that she is a high-priced call girl and she didn’t charge him, he tells Jeffrey later, “it was like seeing Springsteen for free.”
Meanwhile, Jeffrey has apparently more to offer Stevie than a raging intellect—can he really never have heard of DNA testing? However dumb he is, Stevie warms to him. “I like that you think the Magna Carta is about a giant cart,” she tells him. But she’s a bundle of raging neuroses, and his commitment to her, and Stephanie’s to Jack, in the face of their personality issues, is pretty hard to swallow. When Stevie announces she is pregnant by Jeffrey, he is sanguine about it and decides to stick with her and the baby (a plot point that feels borrowed from the TV series Catastrophe).
Perry, whose matinee idol looks are sliding into those of a character actor, can still deliver a comic line with snap, and he brings a world-weariness and desperation to the part as well as a fearlessness in showing the character’s self-absorption. If the acting challenge is akin to Lemmon’s in Days of Wine and Roses, it is also ruthlessly personal, drawn from Perry’s own history of substance abuse problems, both with Vicodin and alcohol. When Jack says, “I’m fine” (the mantra crops up repeatedly throughout the play), Stephanie tells him, “No one’s fine.” Least of all Jack.
Yet Perry’s determination as a playwright to show the worst does, in fact, carry a danger. Some viewers may be pushed to a point of losing any emotional investment in the character, even in director Lindsay Posner’s stylish production. If The End of Longing is not a great or memorable play, it is still a solid piece of work, and Posner seems to understand that it’s one of those inevitable works that every writer has, something one must get out of one’s system just to move onward. It’s been given a smart set by Derek McLane: his gridlike walls showing clear wine bottles arranged alternately in their boxes horizontally and vertically echoes the theme of alcohol’s lure.
Perry doesn’t offer a happy ending, but just the merest hope for the future. The play ends with a long monologue as Jack tries to pull his life together after so long. Throughout, the actor has been as brutal with himself as he can be. And in the last moments one senses the need Perry felt to write the play, and the uncertain future for Jack, as well as for Perry himself. What is more certain for Perry is that, having worked through his own history in this play, he has offered a bit of catnip for what he’ll do next.
The MCC production of Matthew Perry’s The End of Longing plays through July 1 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit mcctheater.org.