Corrections or additions?

This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the December 6, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Best Friends’

If we stop moving, even for a second, somebody’s gonna

bury us."

Ostensibly, Thomas P. Carr’s new play "Best Friends," now

receiving its world premiere at Bristol Riverside Theater, is about

two septuagenarians. It tells the story of Murray (Dana Bate) who,

with the help of his equally aged friend Hal (Edward Earle), fights

to maintain his independence as a human being, despite the

advancements

of age, illness, and the wishes of his Harvard-educated attorney

daughter

Susan (Bethe B. Austin) whom both fear will eventually plop Murray

into an old folks home.

"Best Friends" is a light Neil Simonesque comedy filled with

snazzy dialogue, a lot of very funny one-liners, some extremely

improbable

happenings, and, maybe, a sentimental teardrop or two.

It also has two very fine performances by its two leading men.

Murray and Hal met one another when they were both five years old.

Throughout the next 70 years, through their years growing up together,

their respective marriages, the years working as professional actors

sharing the stage with the likes of Ethel Merman and Judy Garland;

through the years of raising of their children, and the recent sad

deaths of their wives, Murray and Hal have been best friends.

Now Hal has brought Murray, who has just been evicted from his

apartment

for non-payment of back rent, to the cozy confines of his summer

cottage

in New Hampshire, on the day before Christmas Eve. There the two

friends

reminisce, crack jokes, play chess, discuss Murray’s recent prostate

surgery, and generally try to figure out what to do with the rest

of their lives. The one thing they know for sure is that they both

must preserve their own, and one another’s, independence for as long

as they possibly can.

Soon a zany neighbor, Mrs. Dogherty (Vera Johnson), appears at their

door with a welcome-to-the-neighborhood casserole. She happens to

be the wife of the local undertaker who’s favorite cologne is

formaldehyde

and who keeps his hearse parked behind the house where the neighbors

can’t see it. "We don’t want to appear pushy," she explains.

Assuming that the two old actors must be gay, Mrs. Dogherty arranges

for another local gay couple to drop in for a visit. Bobby (Tony

Aylward)

and Tracy (Peter Kybart) show up at the door, decked out in

outlandishly

long scarves and bursting at the seams for the chance to sing show

tunes. Despite the differences in their sexual orientation, the four

men get along famously and soon embark on a hilarious song and dance

number that weaves its way through the cottage, only to be interrupted

by the unexpected appearance of Murray’s daughter, Susan, and her

long-time boyfriend Robert (Edward Keith Baker), who also happens

to be Hal’s son.

Susan tries to convince Murray that he needs to live under more

scrutinized

conditions, but Murray balks, and she reluctantly relents. But as

fate would have it, Susan’s worst fears are soon realized and Murray

does indeed suffer a stroke. But with the help of friends, Murray

gets to the hospital (via Mrs. Dogherty’s hearse), and recovers enough

of his faculties for Susan to confine him into an old folks home.

Knowing that Murray must be miserable living in such an environment,

Hal and his friends decide to take matters into their own hands and

embark on a highly unlikely kidnap plot.

Carr’s script is often very funny. He has a nice light touch, knowing

how and when to use a quick unobtrusive joke, not only to get a laugh,

but also to build character. His characters are warm, friendly, and

believable. As one might expect, the play has its sentimental moments

that scratch at the heart-strings. And for the most part they work.

(Although a drawn-out scene late in the second act between Hal and

his son that culminates in a mutual bear-hug comes way too late in

the script.)

Dana Bate and Edward Earle are excellent as Murray and

Hal. They play their parts with a vaudevillian sense of feigned

nonchalance,

looking casual and comfortable, but always intensely aware of what

effect their having upon the audience. Both are a comedy writer’s

dream, possessing that special comic gift of timing, knowing exactly

how long to pause before delivering a punchline in order to wring

out the biggest laugh. After a while, the audience is so conditioned

to laugh that even some unfunny things sound funny.

Peter Kybart and Tony Aylward are also very funny as Murray and Hal’s

two gay friends, and they certainly put the gay in gay. Their

characters

are exceedingly peppy people, always cheerful, always ready to sing

and dance. They are portrayed in that exaggeratedly feminine manner

that gays usually get from mainstream theater, TV, and film. (Though

thankfully, no lisp.) It’s interesting to ponder whether some day

this caricature of gays will be put aside in the same way that the

Uncle Tom-type caricature, once so popular, has been firmly squashed.

Susan D. Atkinson’s direction is well suited to the pace and depth

of the play. She has a keen awareness of its slightly heightened

goofiness,

and allows her actors to play their characters in a perfectly suitable

and slightly exaggerated fashion. Although these characters look

perfectly

natural on stage, they would seem pretty weird if one were to

encounter

them on the street.

Nels Anderson’s set design, a somewhat worn, but cozy cottage, with

frosty windows, nicely mirrors the characters themselves. Charles

S. Reece’s lighting design, ranging from the moving headlights of

a car pulling up to the cottage, to dark winter cold nights, and the

reawakening blue light of a winter morning, are equally excellent.

Both play an integral role in enhancing the ambiance of the play.

There are a lot of good things about "Best Friends." It is

set in a kind of world that most of us would like to be in more often,

with good friends and good family, and where love and loyalty are

simple and enduring. Of course, life rarely proves to be that simple,

but there’s no harm in wishing.

— Jack Florek

Best Friends, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120

Radcliffe

Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. World premiere comedy by Thomas P.

Carr. $27 to $34. To December 17.


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