The four characters in Meg’s New Friend are readily identifiable. They’re upwardly mobile New York thirtysomethings, and more importantly, they’re all smart. Very smart. They are informed, responsible and open-minded. They know exactly where they want to be, and yet have no idea how to get there. Friend, directed by Mark Armstrong, is a story about human folly and intention, written by the Production Company’s playwright-in-residence, Blair Singer. He takes what could be a facile story about finding one’s place in the world and imbues it with plenty of texture. It is fast-paced, funny, incisive and nuanced. It’s hard to tell whether Singer’s writing, a uniformly marvelous ensemble, or Armstrong’s vision is responsible for this polished staging, so perfectly do all of these elements gel in a production at Manhattan Theatre Source that flirts with perfection.
Meg (Megan McQuillan) is a telejournalist who has yet to make good on her ambition, personally or professionally. In addition to getting stuck covering puff pieces, she’s stuck in a three-year relationship with Sam (Michael Solomon), her lawyer boyfriend, that seems to be flickering out. Her best friend, Rachel (Mary Cross), who is Samuel’s sister, is in a similar stasis. Though a successful ER doc, she’s nearing 40 and has not yet married. (It remains a bit unclear how long Rachel, who is about seven years older than Meg and works in an entirely different profession, has been friends with Meg. Did Meg meet Samuel through Rachel, or became friends with Rachel through Samuel?)
Rachel’s current boyfriend, Ty (Damon Gupton), seems like an intriguing prospect, however. He’s smart, funny, and teaches yoga and pilates to at-risk youth. He also happens to be black, a fact that matters more to Meg than it does to Rachel. Meg thinks Ty’s classes would make for a great story. She also makes a mission out of the man. Realizing that she has never had a true male friend, or black friend, Meg decides that Ty should be her first.
Friend unfolds in ways both unexpected and not, but it is far from skin deep. Though gender and race factor into the play, these issues remain on the periphery. And while Friend would work splendidly as sheer entertainment, Singer digs deeper; this is a play about people, not themes, and the playwright makes sharp observations about topics both topical and universal in a completely accessible way.
The crux of Friend is chiefly how people connect and the role language plays as both tool and weapon in their interactions with each other. These characters are hyper-articulate – Meg and Solomon rely on using language for a living – and are masters at the politics of talking, manipulating words to their advantage. Their capacity for language knows no bounds except for those that characters put up themselves.
Singer possesses a finely tuned ear to the rhythms of how people talk, how they hesitate, when they talk fast, and when they cut off their own sentences or those of others. They use words to shield how they feel, to say one thing when they mean something else entirely, to gauge others, even to provoke them. Sometimes, they even use language to lie to themselves. Other times, they go out on a limb and tell the whole truth.
In this way, Singer’s chosen dialogue really matters. Watch from scene to scene as various characters talk to each other, and witness the subtle shifts in power. Different characters drive different scenes. The way Meg and Sam talk to each other feels true, the way a couple who has been together for several years might speak. Sam speaks to Meg in an entirely different way than he does with Rachel – and after he has learned an important lesson, the dynamic in the way he and Meg speak shifts yet again. (Solomon makes smart, subtle choices in his scenes.)
Meg, for her part, shows entirely different parts of herself in the way she interacts with Sam and the way she interacts with Ty, and Singer’s words emphasize how their new friendship deepens over the course of the play. There are carefully calibrated differences in the way Meg and Rachel each talk to Ty as well.
Too often there is a self-awareness that cuts through the work when an actor knows that he or she has good material. Singer’s lines are lightening-fast and razor-sharp, but if his actors know it, their characters never do. They take their material and make it organic; there isn’t a false note to be found in Armstrong’s production. Like Mike Nichols, he is a master at peeling back the layers of ordinary people in ordinary situations while keeping the play fluid. April Bartlett’s scenic design and Isaac Butler’s sound work goes a long way toward achieving this effect as well.
These characters are mirrors, and the cast goes to great lengths to mine the kernels of truth Singer has planted within them. They map the places where each is confident and where they are not. Meg, for example, is beautiful, charismatic, and talented, and yet comes to realize that she has actually engineered some of the roadblocks she has encountered in life, and McQuillan nails this character’s development in an astute, emotionally bare performance. Gupton, too, is outstanding, and makes sense of a complicated character. He shows how a red-blooded male can be giving in some ways and self-serving in others and not necessarily be bad. Cross brings a great duality to her scenes. She’s hysterical and heartbreaking all at the same time.
I have refrained from saying too much about what happens in Friend, though there is plenty to discuss afterward. Singer has crafted a smart play that never once condescends to his audience, and with it, the Production Company proves just how alive Off-Off-Broadway can be.