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A CurtainUp Review

Between Us

We were not brilliant. We were not special.
---Joel, whose success as an advertising photographer doesn't quite fit his graduate dreams of a brilliant career.
Kate Jennings Grant &  David Harbour
Kate Jennings Grant & David Harbour (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The weekend reunion or dinner party at which the better and worse aspects of friendship and marriage are laid bare is once again being adroitly mined in Joe Hortua's savvy new play Between Us. Mr. Hortua ear for fresh, contemporary dialogue and the four actors who skillfully see-saw between blissful and awful make for an entertaining and thought provoking addition to the relationship genre identified with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Dinner With Friends.

Hortua has divided his play into two reunions, three years apart, in which each couple takes a turn at grappling with post-college, post newlywed stress syndrome. Each takes place in a different living room -- the first a huge, under-furnished modern space in the Midwestern home of Sharyl (Kate Jennings Grant) and Joel (David Harbour); the second in the cluttered Manhattan apartment of Grace (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Carlo (Bradley White).

The initial get-together in 1999 finds Sharyl and Joel hosting the just married Grace and Carlo for a weekend in their gazillion square feet of contemporary splendor. Sharyl and Joel were not able to attend the wedding so this weekend is a chance for everybody to play catch-up and to quickly fills us in on the genesis of the friendship which began with the simple equation of the two men's closeness as graduate students in a photography program. Both were rebelling against their Catholic upbringings and imbued with confidence in their futures as art photographers. Now the diplomas have been rucked away and Joel has opted for a career as an advertising photographer, a compromise which, as the expensive house indicates, is offset by prosperity. Carlo's continued commitment to photography as art is beginning to pay off with some sales and a prestigious show in the offing and Grace is poised to quit her job to get a social work degree.

With marriage expanding the men's simple 1+1 friendship equation, the arithmetic must now factor in the interaction between each couple, the couples with each other -- not to mention the 1+1 between Sharyl and Grace, Sharyl and Carlo, Grace and Joel. The subtle ways professional and marital ups and downs impact on these "between us " combinations sets off explosions that eventually have face-offs between everybody.

The house may not have much furniture but there's enough tension between the hosts to fill every corner of the ballroom sized living room. The squabbling encompasses everything from Joel's drinking, his intrusive mother, to Sharyl's getting rid of their baby's stuffed toy. Snide remarks, hostile looks and revelations of Sharyl's boredom driven affairs catapult this modern comedy of manners into the tragedy of a dysfunctional marriage. Since there's nothing more unnerving than to have a front seat at two friends' intense marital battles, especially when you've just tied the knot, the first act ends not only with Sharyl and Joel's marriage in shambles but the friendship of the two couples as well.

Daphne Rubin-Vega
Daphne Rubin-Vega
(Photo:Joan Marcus)
As Hortua's couples illustrate, it can be harder to fix a broken friendship than a troubled marriage. Without spoiling too many surprises, the events in Grace and Carlo's apartment are as tumultuous as those in the first act. Sharyl and Joel show up -- unannounced. Yes, there's been a reconciliation and both seem to have adjusted to their Midwestern life and each other. They're here in hopes that their apology about what happened during that awkward weekend will bring a reconciliation. Unfortunately, they've caught Grace and Carlo at a difficult moment. Predictably, they too are now parents and the bloom has worn not only off the marriage but the career plans that looked so promising during the first act. Could Joel, who in the first act mentioned that he still kept up with the art photography publications, have known that Carlo's show never materialized -- thus adding a touch of schadenfreude to the drop-in visit's stated mea culpa?

While the motivations of these characters are ambiguous and the changes they undergo happen off stage and are too extreme to be totally believable, the performances are flawless. David Harbour lets us see just enough of the rage beneath his lingering collegiate charm. Kate Jennings Grant is equally convincing as the lovely but tightly wound Sharyl who, in a moment of letting it all hang out, reveals an unattractive narrow-mindedness. Bradley White conveys a nice blend of boyish and uncompromising dreamer and opportunity grabbing realist. And of course there's the terrific Daphne Rubin Vega as his loving but frustrated wife Grace.

Typical of the productions at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, the play is enhanced by lovely design work that includes two on the mark sets by Neil Patel and costumes perfect for each character from Jess Goldstein. Under Christopher Ashley's lickety-split direction the hour and forty minutes fly by.

In the final analysis money, the root cause of so many disagreements, figures importantly in the outcome which does not tie things up with neat conclusions. Thus you'll leave the theater uncertain about how these people will deal with the rest of their lives, but, like me, will probably look for more plays from Mr. Hotrua.

Between Us
Written by Joe Hortua
Directed by Christopher Ashley.
Cast: Kate Jennings Grant (Sharyl), David Harbour (Joel), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Grace), Bradley White(Carlo)
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, includes one intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage I, 131 W. 55th Street, 212/ 581-1212
4/01/04 to 5/30/01; opening 4/20/04
Tuesday-Saturday, with 2 PM matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 7 PM Sundays. Tickets are $60
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 18th press performance
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