It’s disconcerting to see Faberge eggs stored in a shoebox. In her New York stage debut, “BFF,” poet-playwright Anna Ziegler crafts several moments that exquisitely reveal the love and resentment between two best friends. However, the elegance of individual scenes gets dulled by a structure dependent on flimsy tricks and dubious conclusions.
The play’s missteps feel more pronounced because its successes are achievements in subtlety. When we meet BFFs (best friends forever) Eliza (Laura Heisler) and Lauren (Sasha Eden), they’re lounging by a pool in 1991, making small talk about boys and the future. But in their nonchalance, they hint at the crises that will shape the play.
Ziegler slyly peppers the girls’ dialogue with observations about loss and the fear of growing old. Her writing is masterful enough to make these sentences flow with the rest of the dialogue, even though they are obviously heightened in importance. Without disrupting her world, she tells us when to pay attention.
That set-up prepares us for the friendship’s unraveling, charted with such sensitive detail it represents more than just two girls drifting apart.
As she begins embracing her sexuality and intelligence, Lauren slowly rejects Eliza, whose social awkwardness and experience with death in her family have made her a frightened mouse, like Carrie White without the telekinesis.
Both thesps capture the internal fight between desperately wanting to cling to something and knowing it must change. Silences and uncomfortable stillness communicate the girls’ awful awareness that they can’t go on.
Zeigler also gives Lauren a surprisingly honest cruelty. She’s not the stereotypical high school bitch, but a girl who convinces herself that her insecurities are her best friend’s fault and then tries to address the problem. The play’s best scene comes when Lauren calmly explains how Eliza is dragging her down, and Eliza unhinges at being abandoned. Both acting and writing are raw, without any showiness to cheapen the harsh, true pain created by people unaware of the damage they’re doing.
Left at that — with two flawed, goodhearted characters trying to protect themselves as they grow up — “BFF” could resonate, but Zeigler second-guesses her material by tacking on an overwrought frame story for Lauren. Scenes of the two girls are intercut with Lauren as an adult, falling in love with a man (Jeremy Webb) but telling him her name is Eliza.
This tepid mystery reveals a tragedy that befell the girls, the guilt that Lauren carried for the rest of her life, and the playwright’s insistence on using soap operas as her guide for plot devices. All the authenticity in the teenagers’ scenes is replaced by strained coincidences and melodramatic revelations in the rain.
In blatant language, the adult characters make thematic points — it’s easy to live in the past; it’s hard to appreciate someone until they’re gone — that already were apparent.
Robin Vest also hampers the show with her over-designed set. It takes ages to turn “1991 bedroom” into “modern apartment,” and that transition happens almost very five minutes. By the time every chair has been slid into its new place, the emotional power of the previous scene has dissipated.
But at least this disjointed rhythm lets the play’s best scenes stand apart. Diamonds seem shinier in so much rough.