The End of Longing
Matthew Perry stars in the New York debut of his new play.
All you need is love. That seems to be the thesis of The End of Longing, Matthew Perry's mildly entertaining but mostly cringe-inducing new play, now making its New York debut with MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. It tells the story of Jack (played by Perry), an alcoholic photographer living in Los Angeles, and Stephanie (Jennifer Morrison), a high-end escort who thought she had given up on love...until she met Jack.
The play begins with Jack seated at the bar, drink in hand. He makes a pass at Stephanie and her friend, Stevie (Sue Jean Kim), as soon as they enter, but both women ignore him. Undaunted, Jack wanders over and inserts himself in their conversation, a tactic that proves successful: Stephanie invites him home with her, and Jack becomes the first man in a long time to not pay for the privilege.
How did he do it? Was it his honesty in telling her that he prefers alcohol to women? Or was it his vulnerability in admitting that his forwardness was out of "sheer desperation?" Perhaps it was his audacity in psychoanalyzing Stephanie and her furtive sadness within the first few minutes of their acquaintance, concluding his speech with the eye-roller, "I can only imagine how beautiful your smile would be if you ever chose to use it." Can someone say Prince Charming?
Stephanie and Jack's improbable love affair finds its foil in the B-plot romance of Stevie and Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker): Stevie is the more neurotic one (she works for a drug company and describes her body as "basically a pharmacy"), while Jeffrey is an endlessly patient firefighter-turned-construction worker. Although a bit doltish, he's always there to wrap her in a big bear hug when she's acting hysterical.
Over the next 100 minutes, we see how grand romantic gestures can compensate for profound dysfunction as the graying and neurotic photog woos the attractive younger call girl who makes at least twice his income. It's basically every rom-com you've ever seen, presented in 100 minutes of predictable plot development and lowest-common-denominator jokes.
At least director Lindsay Posner gives this apparition from the '90s an attractive production: Derek McLane's rotating set provides for the rapid transition of scenes (there are well over 20). The walls are made of empty liquor bottles and look like a trendy cocktail lounge when Ben Stanton lights them in neon pink. Stanton goes for a sterile white during a later scene, convincingly turning the space into a hospital waiting room. Sarah Laux's costumes convey a range of L.A. looks tailored to each character: Jack wears a rumpled blazer over a T-shirt, while Jeffrey looks like a catalogue model in perfectly fitted jeans. Stephanie has a pair of stilettos for every occasion, lest you forget her line of work.
The performances are also decent: Morrison fights to make even her character's most inexplicable choices plausible. Kim and Dunn-Baker have a legitimate chemistry that makes us wish they were the central couple of the play. Perry's affected manner of speaking (perhaps honed over 10 seasons of Friends) feels more appropriate for a television sitcom than a stage play, but it actually works for his character, a man who uses humor as a defense mechanism so that he won't have to ever discuss anything serious.
And while that speech affectation never really goes away, we have to credit Perry (who has had his own very public struggle with substance abuse) with putting a deeply personal subject center stage: Quite literally, Jack stands alone downstage during a late scene and delivers a tearful monologue to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The moment is brave and slightly uncomfortable, but it still doesn't salvage The End of Longing from being a giant cliché. Those of us who leave this play with the ring of falseness in our ears know very well why: Sometimes, love isn't all you need.