We're Here to Help!
Friends at SolArts
By Steven Robert Allen
My personal vision of hell pretty much matches that network sitcom about a bunch of white-bread “friends” living in grotesque intimacy with each other in a nightmarishly sanitized New York. Kobo Abe's vision of eternal damnation shares the title of that horrible show but is starkly different in almost every other respect.
A new production of the Japanese author's play Friends runs one more weekend at SolArts Performance Space. With a solid cast and a deviously twisted premise, you'll want to make time for this one.
A yuppie office worker (Joseph West) lives alone in an apartment. Life seems to be going well for him. He has a decent job and a lovely fiancée. Best of all, he has his own space.
That space is invaded at the start of the play by a family who forcibly moves into the young man's apartment and begins plaguing him with their good intentions. There are eight of them, ranging from an elderly granny (Teddy Eggleston) to a little girl (Bree Anderson). The two sons (Josh Narcisso and Adam “Farva Faulkner) are both thugs, but everyone else seems nice enough. They genuinely want to help this young man, to save him from a loneliness he doesn't know he has. They see it as their duty to socialize him, to embrace him into the family—to cure him.
Nothing's worse than being cured when you don't realize you're sick. The young man, of course, doesn't want to be cured. He calls the police to evict these weirdos from the house. An officer arrives at the apartment, but he doesn't understand what the young man is complaining about. They seem like such a nice family, and he would prefer it if they would all just work out this domestic disturbance on their own.
So the young man is left to deal with these intruders by himself. It doesn't go well. They trash his apartment. They control his every movement. They steal from him. They corrupt his relationship with his fiancée.
Friends is an absurdist play similar to Franz Kafka's novels or Samuel Beckett's plays. It's hilarious, but also demented, and there's no attempt at realism here. Abe merely creates a psychological landscape where he can explore his main character's deepest fears.
From start to finish, West is fantastic as the addled young man. Spastic and appalled, he reminded me a little of early Woody Allen, partly because of the glasses, but also in the way he conveys such endless astonishment at the sheer lunacy of his predicament. Abe's play is a dark comedy, and West gets most of the laughs by flipping out in reaction to each new outrage.
As the patriarch of the family, Hugh Witemeyer is also excellent. He's so wise and empathetic, you almost forget he's a complete psycho. Narcisso does equally fine work as the slimy elder brother, a thieving, conniving dirtbag who eventually steals both the young man's wallet and his girl.
You'll laugh a lot during this play, but you'll also be freaked out. Abe was once a member of the Japanese communist party, but he had a conflict with his former comrades and some of his bad feelings come to the surface here. This is a totalitarian socialist nightmare. No one has a name in this play. At every turn, individuality is suppressed for the sake of the collective. Dissent is crushed by the will of either the majority or a dictatorial patriarch. The majority passes moral judgment, but they claim to do it for the sake of the person who has made the moral lapse. Their intentions, they insist, are always pure. They lie, steal, even murder, but they do it solely to make the world a better place.
Who needs enemies when you have friends like these?
The set for this production looked somewhat shabby and slapped together. Given the young man's meticulous personality and lucrative job, you'd think his apartment would be furnished better. Thankfully, the excellent cast and stylish production more than make up for this shortcoming. This crew has put together this disconcerting little play with a great deal of grace and humor.
Friends , a play by Kobo Abe, directed by Estilla Lightfoot, runs through July 8 at SolArts Performance Space (712 Central SE). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. $12 general, $10 students/seniors. 244-0049, solarts.org.
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