It's a familiar feeling for anyone who has been around New York theater long enough: You've just seen your friend's terrible show and now you have to think of something nice to say at the stage door. This is the premise of the opening scene in Sofia Alvarez's Friend Art, now making its world premiere with Second Stage at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Rest assured, friends of the cast: You won't struggle to find complimentary things to say about this very funny, almost painfully astute play that is sure to resonate uncomfortably with a certain subset of New Yorkers.
Lil (Anabelle LeMieux) is a performance artist who writes confessional solo shows for basement audiences composed exclusively of her friends, among whom are engaged-to-be-married couple Kevin (Aaron Costa Ganis) and Molly (Zoe Chao). Molly used to be an actress, but she gave up a long time ago to work at a law firm. Having recently turned 32 and dreading his impending final surrender to adulthood — he's going to law school at GWU! — art curator Kevin attempts one more shot at the New York scene: He coaches Lil to create something with a wider appeal than her usual "friend art." Meanwhile, Lil's wild musician ex-boyfriend, Nate (Constantine Maroulis), grows increasingly close to the straitlaced Molly. As they say goodbye to their teenage dreams, these aging millennials have one last opportunity to sow their wild oats in the big bad city.
All of this takes place on Daniel Zimmerman's surprisingly expansive set, which provides for the multiple interiors required by Alvarez's cinematic script while simultaneously evoking one giant Bushwick loft. Found objects and art supplies mingle with kitchen wear. A blob of graffiti occupies the stage-left corner, suggesting the beginnings of a larger mural project that was abandoned. The whole thing looks like an abortive bohemian dream.
The story unfolds through a series of scenes that jump across locations: We're at a bar and then a gallery show and then a performance venue. Director Portia Krieger adroitly smooths over the locale leaps in this well-traveled script by staging the characters throughout the sometimes lengthy transitions. We see Kevin handing out flyers for the show or Lil rehearsing with her sock puppet.
LeMieux gives believably committed renderings of her character's embarrassing performance art (unfortunately, her other line deliveries come across as less sincere). Ganis brings a tremendous amount of urgency to Kevin, making us feel the oppressive weight of his forthcoming life in suburban Virginia Costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter delightfully outfits him in skinny jeans and a tight T-shirt; they're arguably a little too young for him and certainly a size too small. Playing a character with plenty of money who will probably never leave New York, Maroulis exudes an ennui that is alluring and depressing at the same time.
It's Chao's portrayal of Molly, however, that really cuts to the heart of the anxiety that drives this play. With a passive-aggressive smile and a singsong voice, Chao slowly reveals the depth of Molly's neurosis: She's possessive, resentful, and fearful that she has thrown her lot in with the wrong partner. "We're supposed to be the people rolling their eyes at this kind of thing," she tells Kevin after one of Lil's shows that he helped produce. "But I don't want to have to roll my eyes at you. Because I love you."
Along with their anxieties, Alvarez hilariously captures the lingo and talking-points of her subjects. After Molly offers her honest opinion about a piece, Lil flatly responds, "I mean I guess if I was still working some sh*tty office job my views would be colored by the corporate world too." Bern!
While the dialogue is very funny, it begins to wear thin in the second half, which often feels like a parade of inconclusive two-character confrontations. The play has difficulty landing and its end feels quite abrupt.
Despite this shagginess, Alvarez intelligently hits upon a larger angst shared by more than just a few failed artists in Brooklyn. Barring access to a trust fund, New York is an unforgiving city for all but the wildly successful. Once the honeymoon wears off, it becomes very difficult to justify an urban lifestyle designed with just the exceptional in mind.