Shared laughs turn movingly to individual tears as each initially buoyant character in Rachel Bonds’ profoundly sad “Goodnight Nobody” faces or recognizes a personal reality that triggers a spontaneous emotional breakdown.
Commissioned by Princeton’s McCarter Theater, where it’s having its world premiere, “Goodnight Nobody” follows a pattern that’s become familiar in recent decades. Three friends, besties from childhood and inseparable in high school, reunite after a long period to spend a weekend at a parent’s rustic getaway home.
The intention is to relive carefree times and rekindle the camaraderie that steadied and influenced all in the trio, now adults with commitments that preclude frequent meeting.
True to the formula, independent experiences, altered attitudes, acquired sensitivities, shifting alliances, festered sore spots, personal needs, revelations, and surprises undermine the good time and turn it into an angst-ridden mess.
The paradigm may be common, but “Goodnight Nobody” defies formulas. It is too provocatively complex and thoughtful, and Bonds too original, for anything trite or expected to seep into it. Rather, Bonds uses the easy horseplay, badinage, teasing, and routines that signal the closeness of the friends, close enough for them to have their own games and language of sorts, to illustrate how simultaneously isolated they are in their individual universes, even when they are surrounded by people.
Loneliness and a sense of being judged more than understood are effective, affecting leitmotifs of “Goodnight Nobody.” Together and attached as they may be, the friends increasingly live in their own worlds without much immediate company or moral support. One is married and has a child, another travels the USA as part of a stand-up comedy show, and the third has become a recent darling of the art world. But domestic life, the cheer of audiences, and constant rounds to galleries don’t make any of them feel tied to the world or part of something bigger than themselves.
As they will be at times in “Goodnight Nobody,” they feel alone in the wilderness.
The new mother has the best chance at deeper connection. She is devoted to her baby, who has, at seven months, shown signs of being exceptional, yet even as she envisions maternal adventures ahead, she cannot quite shake the loss of her beloved father, a man who was part of all the friends’ lives.
Parent-child relationships, in particular the bonds of motherhood, are important to “Goodbye Nobody.” A major plot line involves a woman (Dana Delany), a famous artist and the parent who owns the house where the friends have gathered, making decisions based on being a mother, specifically a mother who worries uncharacteristically about propriety because of her son’s possible reaction, instead of as a free-spirited person who is used to risks and romance.
This woman comes home, with her boyfriend, to find the childhood buddies in mid-romp and mid-rage, a situation that allows for some deft and subtle dodging between two of the characters while showing how having a parent around changes the mood and tone of a friends’ get-together. The two visitors become more respectful and want to assist while her son dissolves into being a child with his mommy home and friends over.
“Goodnight Nobody” covers a lot of ground, but it does it so that themes and ideas emerge organically from within conversations and situations. You never feel as if you are being force-fed a concept. Bonds’ art is to ease a realization, some truth about a character’s life or life itself into moments that are entertaining or involving on their own.
Her technique is to be clear but indirect. The friends are having fun in a way typical to them — riffing off of nursery rhymes or children’s stories, using funny voices of characters invented by or familiar to them, making a taunting ritual of saying “Poor Reggie” or any of their names when one of them gets too sorry for him- or herself. Yet while Bonds is letting them be childish and silly, she reveals so much for us to glean about the characters, their relationship, their past, their present, and what makes them tick now.
Bonds can also be deep. One of her characters, Nan (Saamer Usmani), is effortlessly talented in many things ranging from art to his careful and well-received cooking. Nan’s dip into the spiritual, particularly a sequence in which he reads into the inner lives of his weekend mates, sets the most consequential part of “Goodnight Nobody” in heartbreaking motion.
This scene is a risk. In lesser hands than director Tyne Rafaeli’s, it could become corny or odd. Scary even. At McCarter it works perfectly, assuring Nan’s gift as one who sees into people and touches the nerve they preferred to be undisturbed and clarifying what seemed to be a random, whimsical choice by the mother, a choice propelled by motherhood rather than by nature.
Neither Bonds nor Rafaeli pulls punches. It’s refreshing that Bonds sets a scene before the reunion that informs us of a heady situation that might have seemed a gimmick if Bonds had indulged in the modern penchant for creating suspense by withholding instead of laying matters out for her audience to see.
“Goodnight Nobody” is named after the blank page with that exact text in Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s classic, “Goodnight Moon.” There it seems a curious or witty addition. In Bonds’ play, it underscores the loneliness that is integral to each character’s being.
Rafaeli’s production keeps all in proportion, the funny being bright and boisterous, and the weighty being intense and heart-rending.
The cast — Dana Delany, Saamer Usmani, Nate Miller, Ariel Woodiwiss, and Ken Marks — is uniformly superb. Kimie Nishikawa’s set is a dream, visually and mechanically. Jen Schriever’s lighting adds enhancing depth. Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes, especially the mother’s party dress, comment on the characters. Daniel Kluger’s music and sound design set a dramatic and rustic tone.
Goodnight Nobody, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, February 9. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. $55 to $100. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.