Stephen Belber's compelling and funny play about a boys' night out yields surprise after surprise.
For a while, one wonders if the playwright is simply planning a threesome variation on Edward Albee's The Zoo Story; but happily for the audience, he's concocted something far more intricate -- a play that will have spectators literally gasping as surprise succeeds surprise.
That's a pretty neat trick for an 80-minute chamber play that's 99 percent talk. Director David Schwimmer deserves credit for keeping the pace naturalistic -- imbued with subtle tonal shifts -- yet crackling. He's splendidly abetted by Josh Lucas as Bill, a happily married, somewhat smug, got-it-all-together graphic designer about to turn 39, and Dominic Fumusa as his college friend Jim, a composting-toilet advocate who's still sowing his wild oats but worrying about their expiration date and starting to crave a "life mate," who are catching up after being out of touch for a while.
Best of all is Noah Emmerich as Joe, the seemingly standard-issue bar jerk who, while alternating between the roles of provocateur and self-appointed therapist, assaults the pair with a series of way-too-personal questions. Still, he soon creates an affinity with the affably tolerant Jim over their shared love of singer Edie Brickell and "that whole female acoustic thing, all that wavy hair." When Bill's wife Jess (the vibrant Jennifer Mudge) shows up late in the game, she's the only one forthright enough to challenge Joe directly. While Bill offers up his share of sidelong digs and straight-out insults, you can tell he'd just as soon avoid a physical confrontation with the hulking stranger.
In the end, Belber's theme is the little half-lies we sustain to accommodate the status quo. Each of the three friends, when put to the test, steadfastly fabricates until pushed to the wall. Even Bill, who sees no sin in righteousness (especially when he considers himself to be right), treads a tightrope path of denial as long as he feels he can get away with it. If these kind of philosophical concerns sound abstract, their onstage embodiment is anything but. Every exchange is vivid and, as often as not, extremely funny.