Matthew Perry Swallows the Truth in “The End of Longing”

Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Perry, in The End of Longing. Photo: Joan Marcus.

There’s no reason why the actor Matthew Perry, still collecting Friends residuals, wouldn’t approach the writing of his dramedy, The End of Longing, like an extended sitcom episode. It seems predictable, but, like the word “dramedy” itself, his ostensibly autobiographical play has a dual personality. The first half of the 90-minute work could be mistaken for an episode of Perry’s long-running series, with three pals, not five. Then, in the second half, Perry’s character confronts a profoundly personal problem.

In the play — mounted Off-Broadway by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel, following a widely panned London run — Perry plays Jack, an inveterate womanizer whose drinking is his most enjoyable pastime. Like many alcoholics, he maintains that he can stop guzzling any time he chooses. His convictions are questioned only after he and his best chum Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker) meet BFFs Stephanie (Jennifer Morrison) and Stevie (Sue Jean Kim) at (where else?) a cocktail lounge. They meet there accidentally, although Jeffrey and Stevie did have a one-night stand that she hoped might extend to at least another night.

The women initially recoil at the men’s clichéd come-ons, but Jack ends up in Stephanie’s bed. It’s the beginning of a relationship in which he accepts, if not fully condones, her high-grossing career as an escort: $2,500 for the first hour; $1,500 for every succeeding hour. Jeffrey ends up back in Stevie’s bed as well. Its the beginning of a relationship that leads to a pregnancy and, to her surprise and delight, to Jeffrey sincerely committing to her. (Derek McLane’s revolving set — from cocktail lounge to Stephanie’s bedroom to Stevie’s bedroom to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and back again — consists of glass-brick walls suggesting ice cubes. Very sly.)

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During the characters’ pairing up, Perry’s script keeps the laughs coming. There are topical references to Jack Black and to NCIS. (Could the latter be a slap to CBS, which canceled his series a reboot of The Odd Couple — a little more than a month ago?) He’s so intent on everything being chuckle-worthy that Jeffrey is presented as unusually stupid, a man who needs the word “simultaneously” defined for him.

And so it goes, with relationships growing and Jack continuing as the kind of slightly inebriated party guest who keeps things buzzing cheerily. Until it doesn’t keep going that way. Suddenly, Stevie initiates a serious talk with Jeffrey about his regularly drunk buddy. In Jack’s current state, he’s someone that she wouldn’t want her future daughter or son to be around. While loyal Jeffrey contends that Jack is Jack, he promises to confront the guy.

Which he doesn’t do solo at the now-familiar cocktail lounge. Instead, Jack abruptly becomes an ugly drunk before Jeffrey, Stephanie and Stevie — something that Perry, the playwright, couldn’t allow to occur when he needed to land so many funny lines. (And again, those jokes do land.) However, Jack declaiming from a tabletop and then passing out signals Perry’s switch from comedy to dramedy. From here on, Jack’s insists that he can control his drinking. He tells Stephanie that his indulgence is not all that different from her sleeping around for big money.

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The ensuing action — much of it taking place later, in a pregnancy ward, during Stevie’s complicated delivery — finds Perry at his most unflinching. Any upbeat finish is only reached through changes in the troubled Jack-Stephanie pairing, which Perry craftily positions in contrast to the loving partnership that Jeffrey and Stevie build through their differences.

Director Lindsay Posner, who directed the play’s London premiere, establishes with palpable authority the feeling of four contemporary LA folks experiencing friendship and love in the context of 2017.

Blessed with the good looks of a 30-something career woman, Morrison’s Stephanie has no trouble playing someone able to handle any career. (Costumer Sarah Laux knows exactly what she’d have in her wardrobe.) Kim’s Stevie is asked to be a nervous woman worried that bad taste in men is affecting her childbearing prospects. Dunn-Baker’s Jeffrey, donning an on-trend beard, is a genuinely nice guy.

No longer the trim 24-year-old he was when NBC introduced Friends, Perry, who turns 48 this August, is sitcom-slick as the amusing Jack — the type of man of whom there’s one at every blowout. When playwright Perry lets Jack loose to be who he really becomes, actor Perry holds nothing back — not the anger, not the long-hidden fear, not the incipient paunch creeping over his belt. It’s a brave performance because it’s implicit that Perry, who famously battled opioid and alcohol addiction, is impersonating himself. Just how close is Jack to Perry? I’ll guess that when Jack offers his first share at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, what he says about being an alcoholic is very close to what Matthew P. said at his first meeting..

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Still, it’s hardly new for a celebrity to declare addiction. People magazine, for one, has made a business out of such public confessions, which Perry knows: he, too, talked to the magazine. In real life, he has also gone well beyond outing himself; for a period of time, he even turned his former Malibu home into a recovery facility called The Perry House.

It’s as clear as the bottom of a highball glass that The End of Longing is another way for Perry to send his sobering message forward. He’s done it rather well. Let’s raise a flute of sparkling water to him.