‘Friends’ depicts postmodern mind-bender

Last week’s performance of Japanese playwright Kobo Abe’s Friends, the senior honors project of director Zach Safford ’09, can be summed up in two words: full house. A packed audience faced a stage hardly large enough to contain the effusive acting power of the cast in their performance of a play about a Man (Chris Fox ’11) whose house is invaded by a mysterious eight-member family.

Though at first we side with the Man and are put off by the intrusion, we begin to question our doubt of the family when the Man has a hard time articulating a specific injury to the police. We know the Man’s claimed love for the solitary life to be a lie, given his conversation with his fiancée (Caroline O’Connell ’11) about having her move in. Therefore, why should we be so uptight in the face of a group of people who purport only a desire to be friendly?

Yet if there is one thing the play suggests, it is not to judge too hastily.

As it progresses, Friends grows increasingly sinister as friendly assumptions are undermined and evil ones are corroborated. The primarily wholesome family dynamic is soon threatened by infighting and the revelation of Eldest Son’s (Evan Maltby ’11) criminal past.

Significantly, one of the larger conflicts arises over the nature of words, the fragile labels we apply to the world, a point emphasized by the fact that we are witnessing a play in translation. Words are all the difference between a burglar and the burgled, as suggested by Eldest Daughter (Mirabel Bradley ’11) .

Though the burglary in question at the time is one of little significance – Grandmother (Morgan Phillips-Spotts ’09) has gone through the Man’s desk and found his cigarettes, an act she does not attempt to hide – shortly thereafter, Eldest Son, a master pickpocket, actually robs the Man.

Likewise, though we side with the Man when he attempts to explain to his fiancée the innocence of the intrusion, especially the females in question, Eldest Daughter eventually does try to seduce him.

Finally, the Man’s exhaustingly unabated antagonism towards the family is vindicated when they chain him up and kill him. The glimmer of hope: Middle Daughter (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan ’10), cries over the murder she performs, a small hint of the kindness the Man recognized in her.

The play does evil the same way it does everything else, i.e. in a way that discourages any overarching assessments. More than once I found myself and others around me laughing out loud. Even the death scene, in which the family captures the Man in a purple beanbag, is amusing on some level.

Similarly, the Reporter (Thomas Casserly ’12) is made ridiculous when he tries to draw conclusions about society from certain family members’ different, even opposing life philosophies. We laugh when he demands to know the location of the family’s headquarters so he can join the club. Members of the audience understand this family in the same way they would regard their own relatives, a group of people who relate to one another in the private sphere, specifically insular in makeup and intent.

However, the Reporter’s inferences about the family’s irrationality are basically correct, and in their lack of cohesiveness, the group does appear more like a club than a family.

In fact, they form a basic cross-section of society in their broad demographics; they range in age from five to 60, and each character is distinguished by a set of personality traits that define him or her in terms of a cliché (for example “the slut” or “the alcoholic”). And as they are strangers to the Man, this “family” is indeed the unknown public that we all, on some level, fear. The strengths in the acting and directing lay in drawing out each character’s distinct traits so we could come to understand them as individuals as well as members of a group.

Though the actors played each part to its limits, the performances never became overwhelming. Mike Leon ’11, in his role as Father, had one such performance. Though his diction and mannerisms were somewhat odd and sometimes incongruous, he worked his character into some of the play’s most amusing moments.

Similarly, O’Connell had audiences rolling in her short appearance as the wonderfully geriatric Superintendent, and the acting she delivered as the fiancée was the most natural of the play.
As the Man, Fox proved his mastery of all forms of “distressed,” from beat-down and nauseated to outright belligerent.

In essence, the play depicted a postmodern nightmare, a society with few defined boundaries or labels. The private sphere, as made distinct by modernism, is then invaded by a public masquerading as private, only to result in the death of the individual. And by titling the main character “Man,” Abe suggests these sinister themes can be applied universally.

Certainly the play got me thinking; I was never bored and left the theater a perfect combination of amused and creeped out. One conclusion I was sure of: you can’t choose your family, but they can certainly choose you.