Love is just hilarious. Oh, sure, a playwright can make it poetic, prurient or even poignant, but if you’re writing a tight, perfectly observed play about backstabbing frenemies, it’s probably wisest to make the romance as goofy as possible. And for all its absurdity and sparkling cattiness, Larry Kunofsky’s “What to Do When You Hate All Your Friends” is a surprisingly wise exercise in reducing an audience of grown men and women to wheezing, hyperventilating laughter over the frustrations of adult relationships.
Kunofsky’s characters have it harder than most of us. His protagonist Matt (Todd D’Amour), for example, has a unique problem: Whenever someone touches him, he undergoes a serious freakout and has to go punch something (never a person, of course – he’s not like that).
Another character, Celia (Carrie Keranen), has a similar quandary: When sexually aroused, she suffers Tourette’s-like outbursts of profanity, bellowing descriptions of unconventional fantasies that range from the unclear (“Suck! Blow! Eat! Head!”) to the disturbingly specific (Hardy Boys fans in the audience should cover their ears).
Guess which two people fall in love?
Matt and Celia’s excruciating friendship and courtship are described by Enid (a wonderfully breathless Amy Staats), an outsider to the Friends – Enid’s designation, capital “F” and all, for Celia and her buddies. Enid is green with envy and narrates the story as a sort of passive-aggressive revenge for her hanger-on status. As a bonus, all the other characters can hear Enid’s musings, and occasionally interrupt to correct her.
Passive aggression is the literal backdrop for “What to Do When You Hate All Your Friends.” Celia and her buddies – Garrett (Josh Lefkowitz) and Holly (Susan Louise O’Connor) – rank each other with a points system, which is cleverly realized by Niluka Hotaling’s number-encrusted, compartmentalized set.
Cattiness is such an all-consuming part of Celia’s life, in fact, that when Matt enters the scene as the newest Friend, he completely puts her off her game.
Helmer Jacob Krueger’s inspired cast could easily make the entire play about snark, but Krueger has managed to keep the cartoony cruelty tamped down until it absolutely has to come out, and Kunofsky has given him other, sweeter moments to mine for chuckles.
One of the funniest comes when Garrett, overcome with awkwardness after Matt’s declaration that no one is ever to touch him, impulsively reaches across the stage and clamps his hand over his new buddy’s face.
Lefkowitz and O’Connor play Celia’s lieutenants in the Friends, but they also do hilarious double (and triple) duty as outlying folks who aren’t quite close enough to Celia (ever the center of attention) to merit a capital “F.” It’s a pointed gag: Yes, we’re enjoying judging Celia and her pals for their shallowness, but it’s easy to see why these other people aren’t included – they laugh too loud, lisp, mis-time their jokes or don’t seem quite smart enough. We’d certainly be their friends, but we might not be their Friends.
But, as Kunofsky demonstrates, the only real difference between friends and Friends is that the latter have managed to hide their defects. When Celia and Matt are finally exposed to one another’s ludicrous quirks, it’s Enid who makes the wisest observation about the romance: “For Matt and Celia, even though it was screamy and cursey and punchy and meany and yelly and hoarse-throaty and eardrum-bleedy, they tried. It’s important to remember how hard they tried.”
The worst thing about this silly, stellar production is that it’s puttering along at a tiny theater off the beaten track in Midtown. Kunofsky has an intensely theatrical gift for comedy, and his cast and crew have risen to the challenge of his smart, heartfelt play. Why then isn’t this play at a great big nonprofit Off Broadway house? Kunofsky and Krueger should see if they can at least get a grant to hand out bullhorns to the audience so they can spread the word as they leave, massaging their aching sides.