The One Where James Fritz Uses Friends as Inspiration for His New Play Ross & Rachel
To a certain generation of people, the words "Ross and Rachel" will conjure up memories of countless Thursday evenings spent in the company of David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, and the classic 1990s sitcom Friends. Ross and Rachel coupled up and broke up several times over the course of the show's 10-season run. First they were "on a break." Later, he accidentally says her name at the altar instead of his fiancée's. Then, they get drunk-married in Vegas and are forced to get a divorce. By the end, they finally got together, presumably for good. But did they stay together?
That's a question playwright James Fritz is exploring in his new solo show, Ross & Rachel, at 59E59 Theaters. This look at modern love through the lens of television's definitive "meant to be" duo premiered last year at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it sold out its engagement. Though Fritz didn't want to write a specific sequel to Friends, these two iconic figures were a way into the material that was too good to pass up.
What were you setting out to write when you began Ross & Rachel?
I was asked by the producer of [production company] Motor to think about an idea for a one-person show. For ages, I've been toying with the idea of doing something about the mythology around love. It felt like having just a single presence onstage, but playing two people, might be a great way to get into the idea that we pedal constantly of love being "two halves of a whole." That was the starting point. Once I hit upon using that title, the whole play started to become a lot clearer.
How did you decide to add in the Friends connection?
I wanted to explore the inside of a relationship and the point that comes after the happy ending. I found loads of early work on the play was being held back because I had to do so much [to sell] this fictional couple and their relationship. Those three words, Ross and Rachel, are such a clear signifier of a certain kind of relationship. It gives context and places it inside a cultural framework. It felt like it's all-pervasive; even if you've never seen an episode of Friends, you have an idea of what that means, in the same way as Romeo and Juliet. Having that kind of shorthand with the audience freed the play up to not have to do so much legwork. It was very helpful.
Once you settled on the title, did you try to shy away from specific Friends references?
I didn't want it to be a Friends sequel, to specifically be about what happens to Ross and Rachel from Friends so many years down the line. I wanted it to be an every-couple story but use that most famous every-couple as its touch point. I decided to be very careful and try and write something that, if you took that title away, could just be about any two people. But with that title on it, if you want to go hunting for that reading of it, you can get something out of it.
What does the performer, Molly Vevers, bring to the piece?
The play is her, really. It's an incredible performance. It's a very tough task I've given a performer, in terms of delivering this very fluid text with two distinct characters in one voice. Molly is an incredibly dexterous performer. She lets the text work for her and she's found this incredible way of differentiating the various moments of the play that's so exciting for me to watch. Without that, I just think the show wouldn't work at all. She does a great job of making it weird and interesting and so much more than it is on the page. The director, Tom Martin, as well, deserves so much credit for that. They built this strange and wonderful thing that's very exciting to watch.
It seems like Ross and Rachel is a cousin to Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, which uses the cultural knowledge of The Simpsons in a similar way.
Why I love that play is that it does two things. You get all the references if you are a Simpsons fan, but it's much more about the commodity of pop culture and how we use it to form our shared history. How we communicate with each other is always based on storytelling, and this is just the latest form of it. I'm seeing more and more pop culture being placed in the forefront of theater. It really excites me. At the end of the day, you're communicating with a bunch of people in a room, and to ignore that shared knowledge seems churlish to me. It really excites me as a writer to use that as my advantage.