Psychodrama was a fun fad back in the over-sharing era of the 1970s. Well, now therapeutic theater is back, raised from the dead by onetime “Friends” fave Matthew Perry, who wrote and stars in “The End of Longing.” The play, now running in a production at MCC Theater, presents itself as a rom-com about best friends and would-be lovers. But it soon morphs into a darker psychodrama about a self-destructive alcoholic with a marked resemblance to the playwright-star, who’s gone public about his own addictions.
Derek McLane’s clever set (subtly lighted by Ben Stanton) defines the bibulous theme with rows of empty bottles packed into cubbyholes lining the stage walls. An additional, free-standing wall of these crates sits on a turntable that revolves to accommodate a variety of scenes, starting with the Los Angeles barroom setting where the four principals first meet.
These friends and future lovers are all familiar types. Jack (a haggard looking Perry) is the suffering hero. (“I would rather drink alcohol than do just about anything there is to do on the face of the planet.”) Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker) is Jack’s sweet but dim best friend. (“My name is Jeffrey and I work in construction.”) Stephanie (Jennifer Morrison) is the gorgeous blonde. (“You want to know what I do for a living? I am a high-end escort.”) And Stevie (Sue Jean Kim, Best in Show) is the heroine’s kooky best friend and a neurotic wreck. (“I always get dramatic when I’m out of Zoloft.”)
Lindsay Posner’s direction doesn’t give the actors any way to rise above their stereotypes. Perry is hell-bent on suffering; Morrison is caught in the gorgeous-blonde trap; Dunn-Baker at least plays his dumb-bunny character with an open heart. But only Kim, with her natural comedic gifts, manages to get an honest laugh from the corny repartee.
“Hi, I’m Jack,” is the pick-up line Jack tries on Stephanie, who ignores him and heads for a booth. He tries it again on Stevie — “Hi, I’m Jack” — when she enters the bar to meet Stephanie, steaming because some guy she just slept with hasn’t called her back. She also looks right through Jack.
Oddly encouraged by the double brush-off, Jack goes over to their booth and tries again, with a line that should have been buried at a crossroads with a stake in its heart: “Hello, ladies,” he says. “You’re both attracted to me. That was obvious from our first meeting at the bar. The way I see it, we have two options: we could play spin the bottle or we could get into a little three-way action back at my place.”
For some reason, the women are not entirely revolted by his crude suggestion, and their stilted sexual banter goes on past the point of pain until Jack’s best friend, Jeffrey, enters the bar. Coincidentally, he turns out to be Stevie’s late date and he has a very good excuse for not calling her in the four hours since he left her bed.
Once the awkward banter is finally exhausted, the increasingly drunk and lugubrious Jack bares his suffering soul and tries to seduce Stephanie with his maudlin sentiments. “We’re all part of this secret society of criers that nobody wants to talk about,” he says. “We gather in different drinking establishments all over L.A. and do what we can to not sob our brains out on a nightly basis.”
Jack and Stephanie finally make it to bed. So do Stevie and Jeffrey. But the kidding doesn’t stop, not even when these relationships get serious. Jack continues to be a selfish unprintable-word, to the point of badgering Jeffrey not to marry Stevie, who is pregnant. “You know what this is?” he guilt-trips his friend. “Abandonment. Complete and total abandonment.”
Jack, meanwhile, is fighting tooth and nail not to commit to his own relationship with Stephanie, who has fallen in love with Jack and doesn’t seem to mind that he’s drinking martinis at 11 o’clock in the morning. But eventually she’s had enough and forces him to confront his demons and talk about the drinking.
That unleashes the tsunami of self-pity and self-loathing that the play has been building up to all along. There’s no question that Perry put his heart into this play, this role, this moment of truth — and the redemptive purging it promises. But the whole enterprise is so self-serving, it really doesn’t need an audience to do its job.