Aubrey Dollar, Matt Dellapina, Keith Nobbs, and Louis Ozawa Changchien in <i>The Tutors</i>
Aubrey Dollar, Matt Dellapina, Keith Nobbs, and Louis Ozawa Changchien in The Tutors
(© Joan Marcus)

How many Facebook friends do you have? How many of them are people you really, truly know? How many are you actually friends with? That's one of the questions to ponder during Erica Lipez's The Tutors, an intriguing but muddled comedy-drama about what it means to be someone's friend in the age of social networking. The first in two summer productions as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, The Tutors, directed by Tony Award nominee Thomas Kail, is an ambitious play that doesn't always succeed, but its author certainly shows a great deal of promise.

Joe (Matt Dellapina) and Toby (Keith Nobbs) are the tutors of the title, men in their mid-to-late twenties who work for an agency that helps overprivileged high schoolers graduate on time. They live in a shabby New York City apartment, designed with lived-in perfection by Rachel Hauck, alongside Heidi (Aubrey Dollar), their college pal who online edits college admissions essays while simultaneously running "Joinme2u," a floundering social networking site the trio set up before Facebook became Facebook.

Despite living together in such close quarters, Joe, Toby, and Heidi are painfully lonely. Heidi has become a never-showering, never-changing-out-of-her-pajamas shut-in with an imaginary friend, Kwan (Louis Ozawa Changchien), whose Columbia Business School admittance essay she recently helped edit. Having fallen for the "heart," in his piece, Heidi has taken to believing that Kwan is her ideal match, even using her fantasies of him to help achieve sexual pleasure.

Meanwhile, Joe, a confirmed womanizer, and Toby, still single, must contend with Milo (Chris Perfetti), a rich kid high school student with whom they work and must befriend after he threatens blackmail in the form of an overheard — and meticulously transcribed — conversation. In doing so, the true nature of Toby and Joe's friendship comes into question, and it will likely never be the same.

Lots of plays have been written about loneliness, but this is the first one that actually seemed accurate in its depiction of the struggle for connection among contemporary youths. While some of her ideas are shortchanged by a few sudden (and unnecessary) plot twists, Lipez has an ear for natural-sounding dialogue and a knack for creating compelling characters. This is most notable in the bourgeoning friend-mance of the sweetly pathetic Heidi and the nonimaginary Kwan, whom she meets in the second act. As played by Dollar and Changchien, who have a delightful chemistry, the pair is heartbreakingly real. Less real is the Toby/Milo/Joe triangle, which, despite believable performances by Perfetti, Dellapina, and Nobbs, ends up confusing in its intentions and strangely unsettling.

If you have a social network dependency, as do so many these days, you might see a lot of yourself in The Tutors. When the play ends, instead of refreshing Facebook and Twitter for the twelfth time to see what your followers are up to, do something relatively unheard of today. Call someone!