‘The End of Longing’
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Playhouse Theatre, London
A Review and Essay
Matthew Perry hit the metaphorical nail on the head with his play ‘The End of Longing’, now playing at the Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End.
‘The End of Longing’ is one of the more relevant plays to be performed in modern times, successfully capturing the destructive nature of loneliness in a busy and morally hypocritical world. While overt themes of immorality such as alcoholism and prostitution act to drive the plot, the social observation runs so much deeper. It is a script that delves deeply into the complexities of life, love, self-awareness and personal transformation in a non-judgmental way.
The story intertwines the lives of four Americans in their late thirties/early forties who face individual challenges of a social and psychological nature. Jack (Matthew Perry), Stephanie (Jennifer Mudge), Stevie (Christina Cole) and Joseph (Lloyd Owen) hide behind frivolous and often insincere façades in an attempt to avoid or suppress their anxiety and self-disdain. Each character’s personal vice – whether alcohol, prostitution or pharmaceuticals – acts only to mask their deep-set loneliness and shield them from the confronting truth. These characters long to be happy; they long for acceptance, to be loved, to find peace within. Cue back to the play’s title, and you have your synopsis.
It is not the characters’ conclusive end of longing however that leaves the audience contemplating the play for weeks to come. Self-awareness is a key theme, often hindering personal progress and diminishing each character’s confidence to the extreme. The theme shines a spotlight onto Jack, Joseph, Stephanie and Stevie’s perception of self, and evokes a similar response from the audience. It is the realistic complications faced by these characters and their enduring determination to attain self-satisfaction that promotes introspection beyond the boundaries of stage.
Playwright and lead performer Matthew Perry leaves his ‘Friends’ persona Chandler Bing at the door, instead introducing himself as a loud, uncouth forty-something lacking repose. The cold open and uncomfortably bright spotlight presents Perry’s Jack as an undignified ‘brute in a suit’ with arrogance reminiscent of an entitled child from privileged upbringing. In reality, Jack is the complete opposite.
Perry’s comic timing is distinct in ‘The End of Longing’, though it is important to note that the performance is not dependent upon it. Perry’s ability to actively evoke sympathy, pity and empathy from the audience during Jack’s most selfish moments is worthy of a standing ovation - and that he and the cast did receive during the matinee performance on March 31st.
Stevie’s neurotic, anxious ways may resonate with one’s own exhausting pursuit for perfection, while Stephanie’s secreted unhappiness and self-proclaimed ‘daddy issues’ concealed by an air of false confidence reflects a common denominator. No doubt then that Joseph’s adorable lack of awareness evokes nostalgia of simple friendships passed, while Jack’s nihilistic persona actively draws attention to our own capacity as human beings to be destructively selfish.
‘It’s the story of four broken people trying to find love, and the fact that it’s possible for people to change.’ – Matthew Perry on creating ‘The End of Longing’.
Transformation is a salient theme, presenting itself in each character in a number of ways. Jack’s transformation is most noticeable through volume and dialogue - the subtle transition between irrepressible shouting and controlled voice projection is most notable by the play’s end. Regarding dialogue, Jack’s incumbent penchant for curse words turns self-regulated following a series of adverse situations and personal challenges. It is however Jack’s enduring monologue towards the play’s end, his admission to giving in to the demon that is alcoholism that refines and defines his character. Jack no longer displays anger or rage; he no longer masks his broken identity with a verbally vicious persona. Instead, his declaration evokes a positive, heart-warming and accepting response from the audience as they are reintroduced to the man rather than the liquor-driven monster.
Stephanie’s transformation occurs through dialogue and direction, but is most notable in the use of costume and props. Upon first sight, Stephanie vivaciously introduces herself as “a whore”. Throughout the play, Stephanie speaks loudly and proudly of her profession, bragging of her sexual prowess and skills in the bedroom. Stephanie is often seen with a cell phone, haughtily scheduling clients between arguments with Jack - her cell phone acting as a symbol for her ‘call girl’ status and thus a lack of professional (and personal) stability. By the play’s end, Stephanie says sayonara to her colourful, on-trend outfits and hello to the sleek, muted shades of the corporate world. Her cell phone, no longer in sight, makes way for the accessible and reliable Apple Macbook, signifying a respectable career path, grounded lifestyle and newfound reliability. Her gaze no longer drifts solemnly to the back of the theatre, but focusses on her Macbook screen: she now lives in the present, prepared for the exciting challenges yet to come.
As a symbol of her powerlessness, Stevie’s name alone acts to portray her fragile state of mind. Without consideration, when the two women first meet, Stephanie renames her new friend ‘Stevie’ upon learning of their shared name. Stevie (meaning ‘crown’ in Greek) may possess an air of self-importance (particularly in Joseph’s presence), but her façade quickly fades when confronted with a life-changing (and life threatening) situation. Ironic as it may be, Stevie - a pharmaceuticals rep (or legalised “pill pusher”) often relies upon the products she sells to suppress her paranoia, anxiety and frustrating inability to find happiness within.
Similar to Jack, Stevie’s transformation is made noticeable in her frantic dialogue. Once seen conversing to a pharmacist erratically in the wee hours of the morning and divulging personal information in excess, Stevie later breathes a sigh of relief - one of inner-contentment – and is able to whisper “I love you” to her beau. She knows she is ‘fucked up’ and introspectively acknowledges that ‘stupid Joseph’ may not be a perfect man, but he is perfect for her. He balances her neurotic personality with his seemingly rosy approach to life, forcing her to slow down and eradicate the need for prescription pills. Through a series of adverse situations designed to challenge her mortality and emotional intelligence, Stevie changes from a hyperactive and ironic ‘realist’ to an emotionally sensible woman no longer reliant upon on the false and short-lived happiness her drugs (or therapy) provide.
In contrast, Joseph admits that he is perceivably stupid. It is his honesty and unwavering values that make Joseph the play’s most lovable and vital character, and is further ironic that he offers the most logic and sensibility throughout the play. “Life isn’t as hard as you make it out to be!” he cries in frustration at the bickering Jack and Stephanie during his time of need. Joseph might struggle to offer more than a minute’s worth of ‘material’ when emotionally interrogated by his lover’s best friend, but what the audience learns is that often in life, less is more: less self-awareness, less self-doubt, more ‘showing’ and less talking. His academic intelligence may be limited but his ability and desire to stabilise those around him is unrestricted. “He is lacking in self-awareness… It’s fantastic!” Jack says mockingly, though it is this precise quality that allows Joseph to persevere through hardship and avoid the same fate as his unfulfilled acquaintances. Joseph is the pillar of strength for Stevie, and the voice of reason to diminish ongoing volatility between Jack and Stephanie. He is their ‘emotional rock’ – despite his limited vocabulary.
“Some say that people can’t change. That’s not right. I see people change every day.” – Matthew Perry on creating ‘The End of Longing’.
Perry should be acknowledged as an accomplished playwright following his string of West End shows. His ability to create relatable characters that audiences willingly invest in is exceptional. Jack, Joseph, Stephanie and Stevie each exhibit qualities we all possess. The problems the characters face are real, and while the methods they instinctively use to resolve them are not always favourable, the journey and outcome is certainly familiar.
People are not perfect; in fact, they are incredibly flawed. Matthew Perry shines a light on our flaws as unfulfilled individuals and proves that happiness is attainable, despite the gritty path one must take to find it. ‘The End of Longing’ teaches us that, given the correct motivators, people can change.
Symbolically closing with a soft-spoken “hi”, the play’s overt message is clear: happy endings and new beginnings are possible, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. Mr. Perry captures this exquisitely, and with charming honesty in his West End play.
‘The End of Longing’ is playing at London’s Playhouse Theatre until 14th May 2016. Book your tickets now through Official London Theatre.
Written by Belinda Pearce.
Matinee 2:30pm, Thursday 31st March 2016.