Modern marriage gets the rotten-tomatoes treatment — yet again — in this broody comedy-drama about two couples reckoning with the compromises life demands, and the disappointments it brings, as youthful ideals give way to the practical problems of encroaching middle age. Christopher Ashley’s crisp production provides a shiny frame for Joe Hortua’s play, and the cast is attractive and appealing, but the writing runs along familiar grooves. In structure, style and substance, “Between Us” feels like a formulaic retread of Donald Margulies’ superior “Dinner With Friends.”
A dinner with friends is, in fact, the starting point for Hortua’s diagrammatic plot. Joel (David Harbour) and wife Sharyl (Kate Jennings Grant) are hosting a visit from old pals from New York. Joel and Carlo (Bradley White) studied photography together, but took drastically different paths after graduation.
Joel, who sold his soul to the big-money advertising world, now speaks bitterly of spending a day trying to capture a sufficiently succulent image of a glob of honey. His self-loathing, fueled by much wine, is hardly mitigated by the fruits of his success: a new baby and a huge, underfurnished house in an unnamed, culture-free zone somewhere out west. He can scarcely conceal his envy as Carlo and his girlfriend, Grace (Daphne Rubin-Vega), bubble happily about Carlo’s upcoming Gotham gallery show and hotshot agent.
Sharyl stands by quietly, watching Joel’s descent into grape-scented self-pity with a smirk of contempt shellacked on her fine-boned face. Her passive-aggressive taunts (“Oh, Joel, don’t be such a drunk ham.”) eventually hit the bull’s-eye, and the couple soon are manning their battle stations.
As the bewildered Carlo attempts to mediate, and Grace eyes the front door longingly, Joel and Sharyl have at it, George-and-Martha style.
Unfortunately, Hortua doesn’t bring any fresh artillery to the wargames. The topics at hand are familiar ones: the waning sex life, the alcoholism, the mother-in-law, the stress of new parenting, the soullessness of middle-class success. And only rarely does the playwright infuse the acidic banter with sufficient wit to dissipate the sense of deja vu. An exception is Joel’s sarcastic dissection of the empty platitudes new parents tend to spout (“Your life changes so much,” “You learn so much about yourself,” “They grow up so fast”), delivered with hilarious, woozy malice by Harbour.
Eventually an impending divorce is announced, and the couple repair to their bedroom. The curtain falls on Grace and Carlo tearing their clothes off on the sofa bed, hoping sexual ecstasy will erase from their minds the haunting image of their friends’ disintegrating marriage. But their impassioned declarations of love — and equally fierce denunciations of their friends (“They’re not like us. They don’t understand each other.”) — strike an ominous note.
Also, it’s an obvious one. Sure enough, fast-forward three years to act two, and it’s Grace and Carlo who are exchanging hostile glances and weary recriminations as they play host to an unexpected visit from their former friends. Things have not gone well for the New Yorkers in the ensuing years. Carlo’s promising career has stalled, Grace has had to give up grad school to work and their cramped apartment can scarcely accommodate the arrival of a new baby. (Neil Patel’s superb sets eloquently evoke the emotional states of both marriages, frigid and fraying, respectively.)
But — presto change-o! — Joel and Sharyl, last seen at daggers drawn, now are the plastic couple on the wedding cake. Although their incessant smooching and smiley-faced perkiness suggests a serious re-education camp, Sharyl blandly ascribes the transformation to more mundane influences: “A year of couples therapy. A long vacation to Thailand. Joel is in AA.”
Joel’s earnest confession of a transforming religious experience, and the diverging economic fortunes of the two couples, become the primary fodder for a four-way exploration of the ever-changing distances between friends, between spouses and between the dreamy ideals of youth and the hard facts of adult experience.
But here, too, Hortua’s dialogue mostly skims along the surfaces of his ever-pertinent but well-worn topics. The emotional subtlety and fineness of perception that marked Margulies’ play about couples re-examining the substance of both marriage and friendship is replaced by a more blunt, declamatory style here. Joel earnestly talks of the “moment of poignancy” that “made my numb life mean something,” and Carlo counters that such navel-gazing is a “luxury” denied the less financially secure.
There are a few provocative moments — Sharyl describes with disarming frankness the “repulsion” she once felt for her husband (“I looked at Joel and saw … a pig”). And, under Ashley’s brisk direction, the actors bring bright conviction to the series of testy tete-a-tetes that make up the second act.
But they are limited by occasionally glib writing that defines the characters primarily as exemplars of attitudes and opinions. This is particularly true of Harbour’s newly spiritual Joel, as Carlo observes. Rather than merely evolving in a surprising direction, he seems to have had a total psychological overhaul.
It’s telling that Rubin-Vega, who has the smallest of the four roles, gives the most persuasive and affecting performance. Silent for long stretches of both acts, she manages to infuse her character with a complexity of feeling that remains outside the grasp of the other thesps. They are hampered rather than helped by their more rigidly defined roles.