Touchstone Theatre

Fridays is about growing old, resisting change, and coping with the inevitable loss of friends. The plot revolves around two elderly men, George and Holly, who are having trouble sustaining the Friday-night card game they conducted for 30 years, and the climax involves violating tradition in order to sustain the tradition (a woman is permitted to join the game).

That amounts to a pretty thin premise for a play, but there’s another note sounded briefly in all of this, a note that adds richness and depth to an otherwise innocuous melody. It involves the awkward attempt of a grown son to be friends with the father he admires and loves. Alienated sons, the ones who rage against overbearing, egotistical fathers, are a staple of dramatic literature, but the affectionate sons who merely have trouble expressing their admiration for their fathers are seldom seen. Playwright Andrew Johns puts one into this sad, funny play about passing on, and attempts to harmonize youth and age, tradition and change, love and loss.

The play takes place in the basement game room of George Herrick, who, for most of his adult life, has hosted one of the hottest ongoing poker games in town. In their younger days, the men would stay up until dawn drinking, gambling, and forging bonds of friendship. But now most of the players have either died or gone south, leaving George with his lifelong chum, Holly, and anyone else they can scrounge up.

Holly, a bachelor who lives with his sister, is becoming crotchety and garrulous with age, which makes it hard to find anyone willing to play cards with him. As the play opens, George is on the phone trying to round up someone at the last minute, but Holly has a complaint about everyone. “The man has no sense of humor, his IQ is six points below a decoy duck, he counts his cards out loud and picks crumbs out of his mustache while he’s supposed to be talking to you,” he says when George suggests someone who used to be in the group. Meanwhile, Holly keeps berating Chuck, the third player, until the younger player storms out, calling Holly “a nasty, bitter old man.”

Holly can endure such defections, but he’s shaken to the core when George becomes seriously ill. He can get along just fine without women, and without the friends who used to participate in the card game, but Holly can’t bear the thought of getting along without George.

Up to this point, the playwright has created a passable sitcom, or “dramedy,” as the networks now call sitcoms that have pretensions to drama. Holly’s sarcastic one-liners generate the requisite laugh every 20 seconds or so, and George serves as the straight man struggling in vain to keep his incorrigible friend under control. The friendship between them is just sentimental enough to pass for substance on TV.

But then George’s son Doug shows up, and adds another dimension to the action. Doug obviously wants to be close to his parents, and, like so many grown children, he looks at his boyhood home–and its occupants–as the only unchanging sanctuary in a threatening, dangerous landscape. “I love it,” says Doug, inspecting the game room. “Nothing ever changes down here.”

That’s a popular illusion among grown children whose parents are still alive and healthy. As long as the parents are around, the children still have a source of unequivocal love in the world, and Doug retains the position of a child with his father. “I’m supposed to be an adult, and I’m just starting to learn [the rules of grown-up behavior],” he tells Holly, complaining about his inability to converse with his father. “It’s easy to do dumb things when you have to fake all the time because you don’t know what’s going on.”

Of course he wishes he could tell his father how much he loves him, and he longs to know what the old man thinks of him. This is pretty standard sentimental stuff, admittedly, but Johns somehow endows the young man’s dilemma with a poignant dignity.

The set for the production of Fridays at the Touchstone Theatre in Lake Forest bolsters the believability of the play. Kevin Snow has designed a neglected rec room that looks like a sanctuary for men. There’s a Chicago Bears poster, and a Wrigley Field sign honoring the ’84 National League East champs, and an assortment of board games left over from when the kids were young.

The problem is that the performances shatter any illusion of reality. John Moore, who looks perfect for the part of Holly, had a terrible time with his lines opening night, and his difficulties seemed to throw off the timing of everyone else. When he was confident about his lines, Moore could generate the bluster his character needs, but every hesitation–and there were many–subverted his efforts. Bob McDonald, as George, responded with a stolid, disengaged performance, and David Welsh, as Doug, had to fumble through his quiet, touching scene with Moore.

The three roles for women are small, which is fortunate, since Johns treats them with condescending simplicity, but they are given some depth by the women who play them–Barbara Patterson as George’s wife, Adrianne Cury as his daughter-in-law, and Beth Hetherington as Kay Strong, the woman who lives up to her name when she joins the men at the card table.

Fridays is a slight, sentimental comedy with a touch of insight and truth. In the hands of brilliant actors, the wisdom of the play might prevail over the pathos. But the performances make the Touchstone production tend toward the pathetic.