Anti-social behavior reaches new heights – or is it lows – in Larry Kunofsky’s new comedy, What to Do When You Hate All Your Friends, directed by Jacob Krueger at Theatre Row’s Lion Theatre Hate is an intriguing serio-comic offering about the perils and pluses of the people we allow into our lives. It stars new discovery Todd D’Amour as Matt, a ruffian who – you guessed it – hates all of his friends. Violently, in fact: if anyone ever makes the mistake of touching him, he responds by punching something. Matt is not the only character in Hate with some rather odd peccadilloes. He encounters Celia (Carrie Keranen), a snob who utters Tourette’s-similar outbursts when sexually aroused. Celia heads a very elite organization called the Friends, an elaborate social network that ranks its own members and constantly shuffles them up and down the spectrum. In one of several roles, the marvelous Susan Louise O’Connor plays Holly, another dominant member of the Friends (although the entire cast is uniformly wonderful, Kunofsky undercuts the effectiveness of the Friends by not having a larger ensemble to fill it out – the group appears too elite for its own good).
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Enid (Amy Staats), a non-Friend who narrates Hate. Kunofsky has constructed a meta sensibility for his play: as Enid speaks to the audience, the other characters (Josh Lefkowitz rounds out the quintet as Matt’s nerdy friend Garrett) can hear her and sometimes even interrupt. Unfortunately, this conceit never quite takes off. It is one thing to break the fourth wall and address the audience, but for asides to never truly land aside of the characters seems like a fruitless gimmick. Additionally, Niluka Hotaling’s set pieces feel a tad crammed into the Lion stage. At times it is difficult to discern exactly where a scene is supposed to take place, and whether different scenes are meant to appear within earshot of one another.
On the other hand, there is plenty that does pay off in Hate, chief among them the odd – and oddly endearing – lengths to which both Celia and Matt go to push others away. D’Amour demonstrates a terrific penchant for comedic physicality, but it is his vocal delivery, from pipes that sound deep but never hollow, that sells the role the most. A lengthy scene in the play’s second act puts these actors to the test in a scene that marries slapstick humor with sentimentality.
The other three actors work overtime. In addition to playing Garrett, Lefkowitz fills in several other small roles, as does O’Connor. But nothing compares to the latter performer, who turns Hate into a one-woman textbook class not only in creating multiple characters, but also in how to switch back and forth between them with no confusion. This is a skill that requires major concentration and discipline, but O’Connor is such a pro that she seems completely at ease in doing so.
Staats dazzles as Enid, converting a role that could have been merely a device into a three-dimensional performance. Where Matt and Celia channel their inner problems into conflict with others, Enid is a sweeter soul. She’s a character that may in fact strike the closest to home for many audience members, for Enid is one of those people on the periphery, someone who never really belongs but is always eager to help out, only to get shot down with no adequate explanation. It’s during her delivery of narration late in the show that Staats’ performance crystallizes into something greater than the sum of its parts, turning Hate from relationship comedy into a more sensible observation about human behavior.
Kunofsky provides many examples to buttress Enid’s narration, but Hate does not quite make this final leap. The show is quirky but unbalanced; the playwright never separates the difference between trivial friendships and meaningful ones. “Friend” is a label that gets tossed around but has many different meanings, all of which get conflated into one for dramatic purpose here.
And yet there remains very little to hate about Hate. Kunofsky may not get everything just right, but he certainly puts forth great effort. And that’s what really counts in a friend, right?