In the run-up to “The End of Longing,” the West End play written by and starring Matthew Perry, the actor-playwright let slip that he can’t remember filming three seasons of “Friends,” such was his alcoholism. His playwriting debut isn’t remotely autobiographical — he plays Jack, an alcoholic photographer — but it’s obviously rooted in experience. It might be quite courageous, were it not so awkward to watch — a star vehicle with its wheels falling off, and its star never quite in control. As it is, it’s hard not to feel that both actor and audience are being exploited.
There’s remarkable moment right at the end: Perry steps center stage and makes a confession to an 800-seat theater. “My name is Jack,” he says, “And I’m an alcoholic.” Given Perry’s own well-documented addictions, the speech breaks right out of its fictional frame. He’s not acting anymore, not really. He treats the audience as an AA meeting, and speaks with precision and sincerity about his addiction. “I want what you guys have,” he stutters — thoughts that don’t drive towards drink; days when sobriety isn’t a struggle. It’s startling and it’s brave. He ends to a rush of applause.
Mostly though, watching Perry play Jack, an unrepentant functioning alcoholic, is pretty unedifying. Not just because the material’s beneath a beloved comic talent, but because these days, this beloved comic talent seems beneath himself too.
It’s all the more mortifying because you can’t tell where Perry stops and Jack begins, and not in a slippery “Curb Your Enthusiasm” way. You’re left wondering whether the slurred words belong to actor or character. Ditto the stubble and the miscued gags. Is this a slack performance or a performance of slackness? It’s both too close for comfort and too removed from reality. Perry’s present in Jack, but he’s also hiding behind a character. Because, let’s be clear: Whatever truth there is, it’s outweighed by a forced, fixed-smiles comedy that’s way beyond credibility. “Life,” Jack/Perry wisecracks. “I never touch the stuff.”
“The End of Longing” gets stuck in sitcomville. An alcoholic, a prostitute, a neurotic and an idiot walk into a bar and proceed to pair off. Jack wakes up with call girl Stephanie (Jennifer Mudge) — all pro-bono, she assures him — while Stevie (Christina Cole), 37 and desperate for a baby, winds up with Joseph (Lloyd Owen). These characters are all one-note creations — you know because they introduce themselves with character notes to start — and they play stilted scenes that are geared towards gags. Casual flings grow (though that gives the writing undue credit) into deeper relationships and, yes, even love.
Charitably, Perry suggests that the existential angst that sends us spinning into make-do relationships also leads us to easy options like substance abuse or, er, high-paid escort work. At least, he might if his play wasn’t so intent on neat, rom-com happily-ever-afters.
Jack’s as scared of himself as he is of sobriety, and Stephanie, snappily played by Mudge, can’t leave behind her hourly $2,500 fees. However, there’s something deeply uncomfortable in equating addiction and prostitution so straightforwardly. Jack’s get-out clause is always “Give up your thing and I’ll give up mine,” but, even accepting Stephanie’s profession as a lifestyle choice, that parallel ignores the fact that it takes two to tangle for an hourly fee. Certainly it feels mighty presumptuous coming from the pen of a rich male star, not to mention unseemly, as one misogynist gag follows another.
Director Lindsay Posner gets the script up on its feet — just about. But sitting through it, it’s more a case of longing for the end.