The End of Longing
By ANDREW IRWIN
A new playwright is staging his debut work, the grandly titled The End of Longing, in the West End. The writer also stars in the play and dominates the publicity poster, which is plastered across the London Underground. The level of attention is justified, however – at least on a commercial level. For this new writer is none other than Chandler Bing. Matthew Perry’s play, which is running at the Playhouse Theatre by Embankment, tells the story of four Americans struggling to find conventional stability and contentment as they approach middle age – one is an alcoholic (played by Perry, who has himself been treated for addiction); one is a high-end prostitute; one is a neurotic; and one doesn't really have a thing, apart from apparently being “stupid” (which leads to some very shallow characterization, but quite a funny opening line). His name is Joseph: we are left to wonder whether his surname is Tribbiani.
The programme tells us that this is “about the ‘Friends generation’”. A comparison to Friends is something of a hostage to fortune – it was a fairly successful sitcom in its time – and one wonders if making it is a wise move; it seems as if Perry is being drawn back to the 1990s, defined by a show that ended twelve years ago. That said, for many (including me), the sitcom still inspires great affection – and it is hard not to feel positively disposed towards anything Perry produces. As the performance began – with some intro music that rather resembled the sitcom’s segues – I was willing to believe it was going to be great. Sadly, it was not.
We are introduced to the four leads when each one takes the spotlight in turn and delivers a brief monologue, laying bare the character traits that will both define them and drive the plot. The scene then shifts to a bar, where the two women, Stephanie and Stevie – best friends – are chatting, while Perry’s character, Jack, smokes in the corner and downs double-Stoli after double-Stoli as he waits for his friend, Joseph. The women converse: Stevie mentions a recent date who hasn’t yet texted back, and Stephanie discusses her career as an escort to wealthy men. Overhearing them, Jack walks over and introduces himself with a slurry, clunking kind of charm. Joseph arrives shortly after and – in a twist of fate best-suited to sitcoms (I can imagine it working wonderfully in Frasier) – we discover that he is the very man Stevie has been seeing (“what are the odds?”, asks Perry).
The quartet become ever drunker as the night goes on. And in the next scene we learn that Jack (alcoholic) and Stephanie (prostitute) have slept together, and so too have Stevie (neurotic) and Joseph (stupid). Naturally, the pairs become couples. Soon Stevie discovers that she is pregnant – and, in a tension-free resolution, they both decide that this is a good thing. Jack and Stephanie’s relationship develops into something happy and mutually non-judgemental. But then there is a set piece in which Jack embarrasses himself in a bar, for some reason infuriating his three companions to the point of crisis: there are ultimatums, streams of expletives and breathless accusations (“Jack . . . we need to talk about your drinking!”). The second half of the play is set in a maternity ward, and works better, with more tension and a more natural plot development – even if there is the occasional shuddering zig-zag from comedy to melodrama.
There is an uncomfortable moralizing involved in the whole thing – and a simplicity that seems to arise more from the need for clean plot resolutions than a desire to reflect the world. Having a baby will solve your problems, it seems. Being a prostitute is wrong – even when the subject concerned is genuinely untroubled by it. Redemption can be found in the love of a good woman.
The staging is striking, however – simple, atmospheric and faintly industrial – and the acting is solid. Perry’s own performance is a little uneven (especially in the more emotional scenes) but when the fast-talking back and forth begins, he returns to his old form, and reminds us how talented a comic actor he is. Happily, the jokes frequently land, and there is a decent amount of visual humour (a cocktail shaker in a sports bag works nicely). It would be good to see Matthew Perry more in the West End, playing the morosely comic roles at which he can excel – but I’m not convinced he should be writing them.