'The End of Longing': Theater Review

The End of Longing - Matthew Perry and Jennifer Mudge - H 2016
Courtesy of Playhouse Theatre
Friends shouldn't let friends put on such self-indulgent schlock.

Matthew Perry wrote and stars in this comedy-drama, world-premiering in London's West End, about four people struggling with love and addiction.

Having collaborated previously in 2003 on a London revival of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Friends alumnus Matthew Perry and stage director Lindsay Posner reteam for The End of Longing, a decidedly patchy piece of original writing by Perry himself. It is running at the West End's Playhouse, which, having recently hosted Lindsay Lohan in Posner's production of Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, is fast becoming the go-to venue for Tinseltown stars in search of stage cred.

This slight, skittish comedy-drama features Perry as a self-confessed alcoholic who begins dating a $2,500-an-hour sex worker, played by Jennifer Mudge. The deal is supposedly that she won't criticize his drinking if he doesn't take issue with her profession: basically a cutesy version of Leaving Las Vegas but without the vomit, rape and operatic display of alcoholic self-destruction, plus lots more sitcom-y one-liners.

The result is amusing for the first half-hour or so, with some genuinely well-turned zingers. But over the duration the glibness grates. The female characters reveal themselves to be little more than caricatures, and the second half devolves into a flaccid, hospital-set melodrama that's there just to set up one key monologue, delivered by Perry's Jack at an AA meeting. As a psycho-dramatic mea culpa exercise it's fine but should have stayed in the therapist's office. Exposed on a public stage, it plays like a quarter-developed film script that couldn't find backing at home.

After some fourth-wall-fracturing introductions from the four main characters, the action starts in a Los Angeles bar, where self-described "whore" Stephanie (Mudge) catches up with her best friend Stevie (Christina Cole), a pharmaceuticals rep raging against the ticking of her biological clock. Eavesdropping on their chat, and impressed by the unapologetic way Stephanie talks about her work, professional photographer Jack joins them at their table to exchange witticisms. Mild amazement is expressed by all when Joseph (Lloyd Owen), the friend Jack was waiting for, turns out to be the last guy Stevie slept with, a beefcake so dim his diary is composed entirely of monosyllable words.

As the evening progresses, designer Anna Fleischle's set slides doors and double beds around to show the two couples paired off in post-coital conversations. In both cases, the lovers find themselves perplexed by their own feelings of instant attachment. Stephanie finds herself able to feel authentically attracted to Jack's wit and charm, even though she spends most of the day pleasuring aging, Viagra-pumped clients, while he appreciates her intelligence and the way she looks like an angel when she sleeps. (Yes, the script really is that embarrassing.)

Elsewhere, when Stevie realizes Joseph has knocked her up, she decides to keep the baby, despite the father's obvious mental deficiencies. Luckily, he turns out to be a kind and considerate partner, whose only desire is to support whatever it is she wants. Owen and Cole, both British actors doing fair jobs with the American accents required, if somewhat overemphasizing the flat vowels, likewise do their best with these off-the-peg supporting characters, but it's hard work. He's basically Joey from Friends, but with less charisma, while she's a standard-issue neurotic female professional whose only real desire in life is to breed.

Both are just a means to the end of creating a crisis in the second act that will throw Jack's lack of self-control with booze into stark relief. Meanwhile, Mudge struggles to inject some modicum of conviction into her tart-with-a-heart, but it's fatally clear the character is nothing more than an ambulatory compendium of clichés, although at least Perry refrains from giving her a sexually abusive childhood. Apparently, just having an emotionally distant father (never met) and credit-card debts is enough to put a good-looking gal on the game.

In the end, it's clear that none of these other characters really matter because the play is all about Jack's pain, Jack's self-loathing and Jack's struggle to admit to his addictions. Given Perry's own well-publicized struggle with substance abuse and recovery, it's almost admirable that he should elect to explore this suffering so publicly, but it's strange that he should choose to frame it in this way. This is supposedly an ensemble drama about four people, but clearly only one of them matters to the playwright.

Venue: Playhouse Theatre, London
Cast: Matthew Perry, Christina Cole, Jennifer Mudge, Lloyd Owen
Playwright: Matthew Perry
Director: Lindsay Posner
Set & costume designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting designer: Lucy Carter
Music & sound designer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
A Howard Panter, Adam Speers for Ambassador Theatre Group presentation