If the final episode of the NBC sitcom “Friends” was situated in a bar rather than Central Perk coffee house, revolved around Chandler’s funeral rather than some minor misunderstanding, and was set to music, you’d have “Everything is Okay (and other helpful lies).”
This original though fundamentally formulaic work, written and composed by Melissa Crum and Caitlin Lewins, is receiving its world premiere production at Cleveland Public Theatre after being workshopped at CPT’s Test Flight and previewed at its Entry Point new play festival.
The show centers on a highly likable pack of single twentysomethings – Willow (Crum), Keno (Lewins), Blazer (Madelyn Hayes), Jackson (Joshua McElroy), and Pablo (Matt O’Shea) – as they review their interrelated lives, reflect on their interdependent loves, and do so largely in song at a bar during the funerals of a father and then a friend. The story does not travel far, but it travels fast.
The TV show “Friends” served as the zeitgeist of the 1990s, reflecting the neurotic, skeptical and self-absorbed tendencies of Generation Xers – who Pew Research unflatteringly referred to as “America's neglected middle child” – as they sought to find recognition and a proper work-life balance.
“Everything is Okay” portrays today’s millennials as desperately treading water, finding a defensive irony in everything, and working way too hard to have a good time.
These characters are like moons in synchronous orbit around one another, incapable of generating their own light and cursing the gravity that holds them captive but keeps them spinning.
Each talented and affable performer is given solo moments throughout the show that are wonderfully supported by an on-stage house band (Buck McDaniel, Chris DeMarco, John Karkosiak and Evan Mitchell). But they are at their best backing each other up, for the harmonies are gorgeous. Benjamin Gantose’s lighting design effectively accentuates the emotion in each musical number.
The no-frills local bar in which this play takes place, realistically rendered by Aaron Benson, consists of towering shelves of liquor bottles that are, like the songs, accessible and varied but way too plentiful and randomly organized to be effective.
As the characters jump from beers to shots to Tiki drinks (one funeral has a Hawaiian theme), so too does the show jump from character to character and song to song without allowing much time for backstories. There are times when you wish there was more dialogue between characters and less lyrics to drive the storytelling.
The play also jumps from plot point to plot point without much thought given to dramatic arc. Even the characters’ inebriation is fleeting when it does not serve the next song or situation. Still, director Matthew Wright manages to keep the show flowing and the on-stage activity with Nina Rossi’s choreography always interesting.
Despite the show’s sitcom inclinations, its edginess and darkness keep comparisons to a minimum for it turns the pain of deviating from the norm into a punch to the gut rather than a punchline.
It depicts the trials and tribulations of these characters without the artificial sweetening of a laugh track.
And it reminds us that life’s hardships do not end when the entertainment does.
Which is why the timing of the staging of this production is unfortunate, for the individual concerns of these characters and the pity party they are throwing for themselves seem particularly trivial in light of current events.
At the end of the production, it is hard to know whether to applaud or ask the authors to widen their vision beyond these characters’ self-absorption and the bar that houses them.