Friends & Neighbors

The neighbors have just dropped by. They've brought Shiraz. And brownies. Sound good? It's not. They've also come with a mission to destroy your childhood and completely upend your entire life. They have a creepy demeanor that borrows equally from Mister Rogers and David Lynch. They know everything about you—even about your old imaginary friends. Such is the case when Hank Mountain and his pal Vera arrive to torment Kathleen Clarkson, a teenager whose family lives in a Midwestern "McMansion." Unfortunately for Kathleen, her parents are too distracted playing host to their friends, talking about paninis from Panera and projectors from Sony, to be concerned about these mysterious visitors. As a result, the guests place the entire household under their spell, until only Kathleen and two fellow teens are left in a transformed world to figure out just what happened.

While audiences might also find themselves scratching their heads after Have You Seen Steve Steven?, the play's sharp writing and natural flow make it a pretty enjoyable mystery to tackle. With subtle nuances and complex characters, it's one of those rare shows that manages to be surreal without being ridiculous, and it deserves an additional viewing to explore its every intricacy.

Ann Marie Healy's script has a firm grasp on familiar subjects, which keeps it from spiraling into experimental theater no-man's-land. Too often, a surreal play expends so much energy on creating a wacky world that it neglects to convincingly capture human emotion. Healy succeeds here by crafting a splendidly bland setting for her bizarre ideas. Before Hank and Vera arrive to shake things up, the play initially unfolds as an interesting rumination on generation gaps.

Frank and Mary Clarkson are throwing a dinner party to catch up with their friends the Dudleys, who've brought along their slacker son and a foreign exchange student whom they've "ordered." With vocabularies lifted from store catalogs and owner's manuals, as well as a complete inability to listen to their children and some of the worst sweaters since The Cosby Show, the adults come off as tacky, ignorant, and materialistic.

So it's no surprise that when they discuss the future with the kids (romance, college), the youngsters recoil. Kathleen and the Dudleys' son, Thomas, would much rather reminisce about their childhood days spent searching for their imaginary dog, Steve Steven. Kathleen repeatedly states that she is "not ready" and doesn't want to grow up and become her mother. Perhaps this is what Peter Pan would've sounded like had J.M. Barrie lived in franchise-conquered suburbia.

With deftly controlled pacing, the gap between the grown-up and the growing is further distinguished. Unlike their parents, who speak in rushed, definitive statements (even their questions seem to contain answers) and frequently talk over each other, the teens speak slowly and suspiciously, as if doubting everything they're hearing—and perhaps a bit of what they're saying too.

The best examples of this juxtaposition are Kathleen and her mother. As Kathleen, Stephanie Wright Thompson speaks in a sort of slow, questioning drone—always the deep, dry counterpoint to the adults' bubbly sopranos. Alissa Ford's Mary, on the other hand, has the bright eyes and chipper voice of a Disney cartoon character constantly on the brink of breaking into song.

It's the parents' oblivious nature that allows them to be so easily entranced when Hank and Vera crash the party. Kathleen and Thomas, however, sense something's up. Thomas even thinks he first saw Hank in a nightmare. The visitors show a real eerie interest in the teens, and confess that they've come to set their imaginary childhood pooch free.

As Hank, Matthew Maher is a restrained breed of creepy: a soft voice, an unsettlingly delayed sense of timing, and a personality that switches from charmer to bully in a blink. In addition to chilling, Hank's odd behavior makes for some of the play's funnier moments. When the scrawny Thomas (Brandon Bales) attempts heroics, his awkward commands, and even more awkward efforts at self-defense, are hilarious. In one fabulous scene, he discovers that hurling vodka at an intruder and shouting "Begone!" doesn't help the situation—it just causes someone to cry over stained flannel.

As time goes on, the visitors' origins grow only murkier. Are they real neighbors? Demons of doom? Mere metaphorical devices disguised in knit caps and snow boots?

These aren't the only questions that linger ambiguously at the play's conclusion, and audiences might leave feeling at once intrigued and frustrated, with only a handful of clues pointing to what may have occurred. Yes, it puts us in the same position as the bewildered teens, but it's important to remember that the characters aren't smiling as the lights go out.

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