A Perfect Couple, Brooke Behrman's sharp new play, is currently running at the DR2 Theatre under the auspices of WET, where Sasha Eden and Victoria Pettibone produce a single fully mounted production a year. For a theater aiming to improve representation of women in the arts, A Perfect Couple is a perfect choice. The production opens to Emma (Annie McNamara), alone onstage, fixing breakfast in her best friends’ kitchen (designed with elegant simplicity by Neil Patel). When Isaac (James Waterston) stumbles in, Emma plops berries into his mouth; when Amy (Dana Eskelson) enters, she rests her arms on Emma’s shoulders. Under the smart direction of Maria Mileaf, the affectionate intimacy with which the good friends reach for one another is less a form of flirtation than of familiarity.
If McNamara works a bit too hard at playing the quirky, perpetually single city girl, maybe it’s because Emma herself is performing that role for her domesticated friends. As twenty-somethings in Manhattan, the threesome led similar lives. Now, as they reach 40, Amy and Isaac have become engaged and moved upstate. They worry that Emma is lonely and outgrowing her urban life; Emma worries that as they befriend couples and families, she’ll no longer be included. But A Perfect Couple is not simply a story of friends with divergent lives caught in a game of city mouse/ country mouse.
Over the course of the weekend, they find themselves questioning not just how they can maintain relevance in each other’s lives, but how they have fit together throughout their shared history. The title of the play alludes not only to the notion of a perfectly matched pair (which could refer to any coupling of characters), but to “perfect” in the numeric sense of the word: a perfect couple means exactly two.
Their lives, the friends realize, have never been so simple. Amy worries that 15 years ago Emma and Isaac were in love (even if they didn’t know it), and maybe are still (even if they don’t know it). It’s unclear whether she is more distressed by the possibility that her fiancé loves her best friend or that her best friend is closer to her fiancé than to her. So invested are they in one another that extricating the details of who means what to whom proves almost impossible.
In a lesser play, the hinted infidelities would be fully realized. Emma and Isaac would have an affair and someone (anyone) would make out with the cute, considerably younger boy next door (Elan Moss-Bachrach, who nails the easy charm and chillaxed confidence of a male liberal arts grad). What separates A Perfect Couple from less sophisticated scripts a la Sex and the City is its refusal to indulge in easy payoff.
Instead, the would-be trysts remain remote, not only un-acted upon, but nearly unacknowledged. It’s a lovely if risky choice that will frustrate audience members who prefer explicit action to circular discussion fueled by fraught emotional conflict. Tensions arise as much from the course the characters’ lives have taken as from the courses they haven’t. The hesitancy and confusion with which they approach a crucial juncture of their lives is as heartbreaking as it is intelligent.
Coming of age following the sexual revolution of the 60’s and the consciousness-raising of the 70’s, the characters spent their young adulthood enjoying the relaxed gender roles and independence of twenty-something Manhattanites at the end of the 20th century. “We didn’t have anything else to do besides be together,” recalls Amy of their all-day Sunday brunches, "All three of us. We were falling in love."
The play spares audiences an academic lecture on third-wave feminism, instead allowing Amy and Emma to casually compare their lives to their mothers (whom they agree have not ended up well) and the women of their mothers' generation (whose options were perhaps less complicated, if more codified). Yet even as their freewheeling young adulthood has left them uncertain how to transition into a middle-age with traditional adult relationships, they look back on it fondly.
“The three of us were a pair,” says Emma, “For a while.” Times change.