As imagined 100 years into the future, New York City is both eerily familiar and radically changed. Developers threaten luxury hotels on Ellis Island, it's not atypical to reach age 137, and people subsist on hummus and bottled water. Everything feels a bit more dangerous: school violence has crept into kindergartens, where students attack their teachers with knives, and the blasts of detonating explosives regularly rumble through the air. Against this churning, splintering backdrop, Ethan Lipton examines the lives of five roommates in his hypnotic new play, Goodbye April, Hello May. There are the requisite couplings and wacky comic misfires, but Friends this certainly isn't. In Lipton's reckoning, New Yorkers will forever be self-absorbed and neurotic individuals. Human vanity is timeless and ubiquitous, and this cautionary tale warns of the emotional wasteland that just might be its legacy.
In a tiny Coney Island apartment, these young adults struggle for survival and labor to make ends meet, like typical New Yorkers. By placing their story a century into the future, however, Lipton prompts us to examine these lives with an objectivity that produces startling revelations.
Fleeing a bad breakup, Irene arrives in the city from Cincinnati in search of a new life. She moves into the apartment that her sister Paula shares with three men: Tom, a moody painter/bartender who lives in a gloomy closet; Harry, a drug dealer desperate for a new job; and Frank, Paula's boyfriend, who teaches school and comes home with various student-inflicted injuries. (His ever-present wounds become a running sight gag throughout the show.)
Irene finds a job in public relations, where, she nonchalantly reveals, she must occasionally sleep with someone to make a deal. It soon becomes clear that every character operates on some level of emotional sterility. Although Frank pleads for affection from Paula, who works late hours as a physician, he later shrugs her off, loudly complaining to Harry about her stony personality. Even Irene's poignant story about the end of her former relationship, related with dazzling sensitivity by Kelly Mares, is a falsehood, an empty event dressed up to appear like something that matters.
Erratic explosions inexplicably interrupt the occasional conversation, but they are never referenced by the characters—apparently they have become so normalized that they don't warrant comment. After Paula is badly burned in a nearby blast, Irene still prattles on about the minutiae of her love life to her bandaged and immobilized sister.
It's hard to tell if these bleak personalities are the result of the environment or an all-consuming narcissism, but Lipton gives us the chance to puzzle it out in the second act, when Paula and Frank move to the country.
Listening to friends discuss the minuscule details of their lives eventually becomes tiresome, and Lipton's dialogue also hits the occasional sag and snag. Most of the time, however, he deftly moves between pockets of wit and brilliance—the pervasive despair is enlivened by his devilish sense of humor and highly developed ear for authentic-sounding patter, as in the following exchange between Frank and Paula:
Frank: I got us tickets to a baseball game.
Paula: Do you think we should not be together anymore?
Frank: [Pause.] I think we should stay together long enough to go to the baseball game.
The script is given an enormous boost by Patrick McNulty, whose slick direction locates the show's grace and momentum. It's further enhanced by the extraordinary talents of its cast, all of whom turn in extremely focused and compelling work.
Gibson Frazier is especially winning as the wry and wary Frank, and he delivers his deadpan lines with masterful comic timing. His riff on New York City disaffection is particularly excellent.
As the tentative newcomer, Mares expertly captures Irene's early fragility and continues to show us glimpses of that timidity even as her character becomes tougher and more inured to city living. "I used to dream about helping people," she says. "What do you dream about now?" Tom wonders. "Outsmarting them," she replies.
The starched, anesthetic design underscores the chilly emotional disconnect that drives these characters. Jo Winiarski (set) and G. Benjamin Swope (lighting) contribute a sleek kitchen anchored by an icy tile floor topped with a large, multisectional fluorescent light. Beneath the fuzzy lighting, we squint along with the characters to try to see things clearly.
Eben Levy's original music provides still more texture. Warm guitar chords wrestle with frosty, bouncy electronic sounds, creating layers of dissonance and complexity that percolate along with the plot.
In many ways, New York City seems to survive on such waves of dissonance. Although it's impossible to know what the city will look like in 100 years, here's hoping that Lipton's invention will inspire a few souls to dodge the emotional scouring he predicts.