Among Friends

Victory Gardens Theater

By Adam Langer

I was appalled to learn that Harold Pinter’s current off-Broadway play, Ashes to Ashes, was commanding top ticket prices even though it’s only about 40 minutes long. But after seeing Kristine Thatcher’s new drama, Among Friends, I’m beginning to come around to the dollar-a-minute idea. There are some really mediocre two-hour plays out there that could be excellent at half the length. But since major theaters now rarely produce evenings of one-acts, and few playwrights can command 40 bucks for 40 minutes, we have a glut of one-act plays posing as two-acts by means of overwriting and unnecessary intermissions.

The crux of Thatcher’s drama–about three middle-aged friends whose relationships are severely tested by jealousy and betrayal–lies in one particularly fine scene at the beginning of the second act, as the simmering tension between the men reaches a full boil. Will, a high-minded if somewhat self-righteous schoolteacher, accuses Dan, a decorated Vietnam vet and real estate tycoon, of betraying and using him and Matt, an unlucky schlub who works as a salesman at Sears. Will’s angry accusations, Dan’s attempts to defend himself, and Matt’s efforts to keep the peace all have the aroma of truth, and the characters’ complex interactions play out like a six-handed tennis match or a cutthroat game of pool. The trouble is the anemic first act that gets us to this point and what follows.

Exploring the competitive nature of male friendships, Chicago playwright-actress Thatcher frames her drama with a rather familiar device, the poker game. Poker, with its talk of deals and stakes, has been used as a metaphor for the game of life in theater and film for ages, from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (originally titled “The Poker Night”) to Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple to the 1959 musical Fiorello! to more recent efforts like Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice, David Mamet’s House of Games, and even the Factory Theater’s Alive. How a player approaches the game often mirrors his approach to life. But the questions are almost always the same–who’s lucky and who gets the bad hands, who bluffs and who cheats, who stays in until the bitter end and who folds.

If Thatcher is an avid poker player, it doesn’t show in Among Friends. Of all the scripts mentioned, hers is by far the least authentic. When the lights come up on Will (Dev Kennedy), Matt (Peter Burns), and Dan (David Darlow) playing out a hand, there’s precious little of the camaraderie and competition you’d expect from three old friends. The dialogue has a canned quality: “Read ’em and weep!” “Let ‘er rip. I’m on the comeback trail.” “Shake a leg. I got a hot hand.” And the attempts to imitate male-bonding repartee lack credibility. Would any even slightly enlightened male who grew up during the 60s really deliver a Beetle Bailey-style remark about “the curves on that broad” or comment that the ultrasuccessful Dan has “the golden touch when it comes to babes”? And would anybody, except in a play, tell a friend he’s known for years, “I’ve known you for years. I’ve considered you one of my best friends”? You’d be hard-pressed to find less authentic and engaging dialogue among three strangers playing cards in an Amtrak lounge car, let alone three old pals.

Though this Victory Gardens world premiere features three fine, seasoned actors, the play isn’t helped by Dennis Zacek’s staging of the game that sets the plot in motion, during which Will observes Dan cheating. Placing one character facing us at a round table and the others on either side with their bodies turned out, Zacek apparently wants the audience to see each character’s face full on. But the result is that, during the game, it often appears the actors aren’t even looking at one another, an effect that like the stilted dialogue makes them seem unconnected. The pace of the first act, too, is lethargic: sometimes it’s so slow that one becomes all too conscious of the whir of the theater’s fans and the hum of its lighting system.

There’s nothing really wrong with Thatcher’s plot or how she sets it up in the first act. When Dan offers a hefty loan to the hapless Matt, whose wife is about to have a child, one can’t help but wonder if it’s intended to buy Matt’s support of a controversial development project that Will objects to, and if Dan isn’t as much of a cheater in real life as he appears to be in poker. The questions Thatcher raises–whether misdemeanors are always evidence of hidden high crimes, whether it’s possible to salvage a friendship after one person betrays another–are somewhat thought provoking. But too often, given the heavy-handed interactions between her characters, Among Friends feels like only the outline for a good play. The second scene of the first act, in which Dan gives Matt the $30,000 cashier’s check, seems as if it’s been stretched so that the play will run 90 minutes and justify an intermission: Matt’s amusing but unnecessarily long speech about his family’s run of bad luck merely sets up his acceptance of Dan’s generous but suspicious offer.

So when the second act opens, it’s something of a surprise to see how well this confrontation works. Everything that had been hinted at –Dan’s duplicity, Will’s turmoil over whether or not to rat on his friend, Matt’s pathetic desperation–fully emerges in this taut scene. It’s almost as if Thatcher had been coasting through the first act, since here she delivers so well, living up to the reputation she’s won with her highly acclaimed Emma’s Child and Niedecker.

It’s downhill from there, however, as the forced male-bonding dialogue that mars the first act reappears. Thankfully Thatcher and Zacek don’t return to the stultifying pace of the play’s first scene, but the rest of the second act seems an extended anticlimax despite some great work by Darlow, as Dan desperately attempts to win back his friends’ trust. There may be a great play hiding in Among Friends, but it will be worth a dollar a minute only when it comes in under an hour.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Liz Lauren.