Best of Friends
Jeff Daniels wrights again
by Sally Mitani
Curious thing about the word "playwright"-it has nothing to do with writing. "Wright" is a word from the manufacturing arts (wheelwright, shipwright), not the arty arts, and Jeff Daniels is a skilled manufacturer of stage plays, punching out about one a year, kind of like Charles Dickens did novels, or Woody Allen does movies. Like that of Allen and many wrights before him, Daniels' work is always competent, solid, and comfortable in its ability to offer up well-crafted entertainment, rather than envelope-pushing art.
In Best of Friends, Daniels puts two outwardly secure, civilized couples in a tasteful, well-appointed living room, then turns their mundane social evening into the upper-middle-class equivalent of a cage fight. It proved a golden formula for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and God of Carnage (the Yasmina Reza play in which Jeff Daniels performed on Broadway). Daniels has frankly identified God of Carnage as the inspiration for Best of Friends, and he seems to tip his hat even more to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As in Woolf, the two couples in Best of Friends aren't evenly matched: Beth (Michelle Mountain) and John (Alex Leydenfrost) are older, wealthier, and predatory. Beth is booze-addled, and (as Beth's taunts point out) John is sterile, and possibly impotent. The younger couple, Ken and Hannah (Matthew David and Rhiannon Ragland), like Albee's younger couple, initially seem wholly opposite to Beth and John-but the action quickly departs from that of Daniels' two inspirations and takes off on its own.
Daniels doesn't expressly say the two couples live in a gated golf community, but it's easy to imagine they do. It seems John and Ken met on a golf course and became friends not so much because they liked each other, but because they didn't dislike each other. These men, with their diffident, unexamined, undeveloped inner lives can't see much beyond their mandate to bring home as much money as possible. Meanwhile, their wives are all about inner life-with no children
and no jobs, they have nothing to do but develop their personalities. Beth has clearly come to love her own sour, loony company so much that she doesn't notice what a startling image she sometimes projects. Hannah, obsessed with the budding friendship, sees intricately coded social messages in what is more likely careless apathy.
Mountain is marvelous as the catalyst of social insanity she always seems to neatly sidestep. David is equally fascinating, his Ken stolidly blind and deaf to any voice-internal or external-that might make sense of the world. Ragland and Leydenfrost are a little less compelling. Almost as if the actors had taken on the worst excesses of their characters, Ragland at times seems to overshoot her part, and Leydenfrost sometimes barely registers as a presence at all.
As a playwright Daniels is best known for his Escanaba series of Michigan gothic tall tales, but I like him when he tackles contemporary drama. Sometimes you can almost see him sweating to produce recognizable but complex characters. To do that he uses some postmodern devices, like breaking through the "fourth wall" at the front of the stage, and spinning time backwards. Not everything works, but there's no doubt that Daniels does. If you're looking for an evening's entertainment between now and December 18, when Best of Friends closes, the play is a strong bet.
[Originally published in December, 2010.]