Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


The Purple Rose Theatre Company's world premiere of Best of Friends certainly succeeded at blasting away my expectations. Everything from the warm and fuzzy title to the so-happy portraits adorning Vincent Mountain's rich Pottery Barn catalog set to the opening notes of convivial laughter is carefully suggestive of a real, honest, touchy-feely journey of discovery and friendship. Then the actors start speaking, and the ensuing laugh-baiting eighty-five minutes unravel a savagely mean, ruthless underbelly that almost punishes every preconceived notion of niceness. Indeed, playwright Jeff Daniels's new comedy is like putting bugs together in a jar and shaking it up to watch them fight.

Told in a fluid, half-narrative style, the single-act play gives the viewer entry into the living rooms of two married couples. Privileged auto executive John Martin (Alex Leydenfrost) and his bitter lush of a wife, Beth (Michelle Mountain), fall halfway into and then unreservedly out of a friendship with rough-edged mechanic Ken Porter (Matthew David) and his easily influenced wife, Hannah (Rhiannon Ragland). An apparently harmonious quartet at first, some potentially unremarkable incidents drive an immediate, irreparable wedge between the Martins and Porters, who fully morph into scheming and vengeful monsters gleefully holding up the pretense of friendship in order to keep their enemies closer. What follows is part childish prank escalation, part upper versus upper-middle class war, and all a highly concentrated embodiment of the frenemy concept. Even as it becomes clear these couples never liked each other much, even as it becomes questionable that they are capable of liking anybody, both sides collectively come back for more, claws at the ready.

The incredulity of what happens over the course of the play is in itself a rich source of humor. To elaborate on the major points would spoil their capacity to surprise, but suffice it to say, I'd like to believe ill-advised plans of this magnitude do not generally exist in the real world. Director Guy Sanville further capitalizes on the characters' use of asides to comment on the action and rake in the punchlines with hard-earned one-liners. The ensemble cast works exceptionally well together, with clockwork timing and believable fakeness that complements their bilious simmering. The structural conceit that these ex-friends have gathered after the fact to pick over the ruins of their relationship for the benefit of an audience is executed well as the actors fall in and out of the scenes, liking and pretending to like and baldly despising each other in the blink of an eye. An additional comedic layer comes from an out-of-left-field double whammy from lighting and sound designers Dana White and Quintessa Gallinat, respectively; if for nothing else, it's funny for being so anachronistically shocking.

Yet in a world this acerbic, I found myself looking for some semblance of relatability in the characters, and ultimately came up lacking. Daniels's take on assumptions was a particular strain in this respect: just about every time one couple's paranoia runs away with them, causing them to make outlandish claims about the opposite pair, the accused proudly concede that the accusers' conclusions were dead on. There's a base plausibility that this kind of relational mutation could happen, that we ourselves behave in this way sometimes, albeit less magnified; certainly, we wouldn't like outsiders to scrutinize our lesser moments in a complete absence of context. However, this perspective is so extreme, with its characters so singularly calculating, so irredeemable, that their anti-human characteristics seem to actively discourage any audience connection. After a time, the Charlie Brown/football trick of revealing the wicked twist behind the apparently warm exchange dulls the viewer's expectations of these people as anything but mouthpieces for humorous insults.

This production does a thorough job at appearing to be one thing and then becoming another, an alternate reality of a comedy that has real bite. Daniels consciously casts aside any need for his characters to be good or even likable, which makes way for cruel laughter but inevitably presents some barrier to empathy. With its blown-out take on the misuse of basic social constructs and the unthinkable depths of gleefully rotten behavior the story plumbs, there is plenty to draw audiences to Best of Friends, but the deliberate humanity void behind its unabashedly vicious comedy may not draw them back again.


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