Every once in a while, if you are lucky, you might see a play by someone who apparently has never seen a play himself, or who has seen only one type of play, or whose knowledge of the theatre is limited to audition monologues—a play’s most dramatic moments—and who extrapolated that knowledge into some vague notion of what a play should be, then wrote a play based on that notion. Midway through the play you might cry out, silently, “how could this come to pass?” The answer will glare back at you from the stage itself: the writer and star is a famous man.
I will not recommend MCC Theater’s The End of Longing, written by and starring Matthew Perry, erstwhile of the sitcom Friends. But I will describe its plot. A man, Jack (Perry), meets a woman, Stephanie (Jennifer Morrison), and they fall in love. The night they meet, in a cocktail bar, after he’s interrupted her conversation with her friend, Jack tells Stephanie that she is one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen, that he senses in her a deep sadness through which improbably her beauty persists, that if only she gave him the chance he would tell her how beautiful she is, every day, and that perhaps the very act of telling her would someday end her sadness, allowing her finally to smile. “I could only imagine how beautiful your smile might be,” he concludes, “if only you ever chose to use it.”
Reader, she takes him to bed. The next morning, after the two strangers have been drawn together by the irresistible force of him having flirted with her, the dramatic revelations begin. First it turns out Stephanie is a sex worker—in her words, a “high-end escort”—who has not been emotionally intimate with a man in years. Then it turns out Jack is a high-functioning alcoholic, and has been ever since a girlfriend left him after a three-month fling 20 years ago. Then, that Stephanie’s father was abusive and she’s been on edge around men her whole life. She never says outright that her past had a causative relationship with her current profession, but as this is one of those plays where all present suffering is the result of buried trauma, I would not dispute that reading. There’s a secondary plot in which Jack’s best friend, the goofily dumb construction worker Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker), falls in love with Stephanie’s best friend, Stevie (Sue Jean Kim), a high-strung pharmaceutical professional who wants nothing more than to get pregnant. Well, they conceive. Jeffrey agrees to help raise the baby even though, as he and other characters state repeatedly, Stevie is “crazy,” which mostly manifests as her stressing about why men take forever to text her back.
Stevie’s pregnancy—and by extension her body, her desires and her entire existence in the play—almost immediately becomes a prop. First it drives Jack and Stephanie apart, when he has a drunken meltdown the night they all gather to celebrate Jeffrey and Stevie’s news. Then it brings them back together, months later, when Stevie almost dies in labor—offstage—prompting Jack and Stephanie to resolve their differences in the waiting room. Why, though? If you asked me what he likes about her other than her body, or what she likes about him other than… that he likes her body?, I couldn’t tell you. That they eventually overcome their differences feels more like a loss than a win. Jack is a boor. His charm extends no further than his libido. What is there to root for?
Alas, he’s a Flawed Male Antihero suffering so deeply that we are compelled to sympathize with him. Theoretically. In reality, Perry takes little interest in the life-defining pains he assigns his characters. Jack’s lengthy description of his descent into drink sounds like a robot on the cusp of understanding human emotion: “I came over and instead of sleeping with me, she ended it. She was no longer in love with me, and we were done. I don’t know why. I don’t know what happened. I still don’t know what I did wrong. But it was just the end for her. I had never felt pain like that in my entire life.” The woman who broke his heart—again, after a three-month relationship 20 years ago—earns no name or description beyond her beauty. And Stephanie reveals little more about herself than that she has sex for money, which the play curiously suggests is a character flaw just like Jack’s alcoholism and lechery. Yeah, Jack drinks, but she’s a sex worker: they were doomed from the start! When the two finally get back together at the end (sorry), it is only due to a compromise offered by Jack: if she quits sex work, he will quit drinking. The solution, like the play, is totally lacking in compassion toward sex work, using the industry as a punchline and a prop. Perry offers only a touch more sympathy toward Jack’s alcoholism, which he scarcely acknowledges as a disease. Nowhere in the several instances of Jack’s loved ones yelling at him is there any suggestion that his situation is beyond his control, or that after 20 years (!) drunk he should perhaps seek medical help. He does end up at an AA meeting, but this seems mostly an excuse for Perry to deliver another long, weepy monologue about how he needs to get clean so he can be with the woman whom, again, he loves solely for her beauty.
There’s plenty more to say about The End of Longing, such that it is filled with jokes, but the sort of jokes you might expect of late-series Friends: when a newly pregnant Stevie is vomiting in the bathroom, Jeffrey says, “It’s nine o’clock at night. I thought it was called morning sickness!” Quincy Dunn-Baker, Sue Jean Kim and Jennifer Morrison all bring wit and zest to their thinly drawn roles and clunky dialogue. There’s the odd tic where characters occasionally dip into overly formal English—calling each other “old friend” and “sport,” for instance—or the one where they enter a scene explaining its context: “Finally the only all-night pharmacy that is actually open all night. It says so in the stupid name for Christ’s sake.” All told, The End of Longing is your average sad funny story about sad funny people, and I mean that in the most literal sense possible. If you plop every seriocomedy into a spreadsheet and calculate the mean, this is what you’ll get. It is also, not coincidentally, a powerful argument for new plays to be anything but average.