'The End of Longing': Theater Review
Matthew Perry and Jennifer Morrison star in Perry's playwriting debut about an alcoholic who falls in love with a high-end escort.
To get a basic idea of Matthew Perry's debut play, in which he also stars, imagine that it’s set in a bar rather than a coffee shop and it features four (rather than six) dysfunctional friends. Not so subtly inspired by its author’s struggles with addiction, The End of Longing squashes its attempt at tackling dark themes with a glib approach that ill-serves both the subject matter and the performers. Receiving its off-Broadway premiere following a 2016 engagement in London’s West End, the production should be a big draw for MCC Theater. But future life without the onstage presence of its famous playwright seems unlikely.
Composed of a series of short scenes that give it the feel of a multicamera sitcom, Perry’s script depicts the romantically charged interactions between Jack (Perry), an alcoholic photographer who barely disguises his existential despair with sardonic humor (think Friends' Chandler Bing having an extended lost weekend); his dim-witted but good-hearted best friend Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who dreams of being a fireman but has a pathological fear of fire; Jeffrey’s girlfriend Stevie (Sue Jean Kim), whose biological clock is not so much ticking as on the verge of blowing up; and her best friend Stephanie (Jennifer Morrison of ABC’s Once Upon a Time), who makes her living as a “high-end escort.”
After the foursome get to know one another during an impromptu meeting at a bar, Jack takes an immediate shine to the gorgeous Stephanie, who surprisingly returns his affections and takes him home for a freebie. As the couple’s romance deepens, Jack’s problems with alcohol become even more pronounced. Meanwhile, the relationship of Jeffrey and Stevie moves to a higher level when she gets pregnant and he happily embraces impending fatherhood.
The playwright’s inexperience becomes evident from the paper-thin characterizations — Jack blames his addiction on having been dumped by a past love, while Stevie is defined almost exclusively by her emotional neediness — and lack of credible plotting. Jack may possess a certain rumpled charm, but not enough to make the gorgeous Stephanie failing for him believable. Clichés abound, whether it’s Stevie screaming for drugs when about to give birth (gee, never saw that before) or Jack demonstrating that he may have turned an emotional corner by tenderly cradling a newborn baby.
Perry at least demonstrates that his extensive television comedy experience has rubbed off. The evening features many amusing one-liners (most of them, predictably, delivered by the author, although Dunn-Baker and Kim score their share of laughs). Perry displays his familiar expert comic timing and delivery, although — and it’s hard to tell whether it’s a result of his character’s dissipation or his own — those skills seem more muted and strained. When he attempts to emote more seriously, any effectiveness stems more from our knowledge of his real-life travails than his dramatic technique. Morrison, too, seems to flounder with her wooden line readings, although she’s admittedly hampered by her character’s inconsistencies.
Reprising his London duties, director Lindsay Posner keeps the proceedings effectively fast-paced on Derek McLane’s seemingly non-stop revolving set. But he’s unable to infuse the evening with the emotional authenticity needed to make The End of Longing much more than a star vehicle designed to appeal to Perry’s TV fanbase.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Quincy Dunn-Baker, Sue Jean Kim, Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Perry
Playwright: Matthew Perry
Director: Lindsay Posner
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music and sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Presented by MCC Theater