Joe Hortua's Between Us is a sneaky play; I'm not sure that the author knows how sneaky - or how much sneakier it might be. It looks like a standard-issue drama of agonistic candor, by which I mean the kind of play, perfected by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, in which intimacy among the characters collapses in a sort of controlled demolition, undermined by revelation of the secrets that create and define it. The series of disclosures - all of them either surprises or betrayals - is as strategic as the detonations that bring large buildings down. Important relationships are wrecked, sometimes in order that better ones, untainted by illusion, might be built on the ruins. More often, it seems, somebody commits suicide. There is plenty of candor in Between Us. But it is not standard issue.
While we watch the four thirtyish characters - two old friends and the women in their lives - blurt out and respond to some very provoking remarks, we might well miss something else that's going on, or, rather, not going on. I felt its absence during the first act, but couldn't identify it. I was too busy wondering where the barreling pace - a very rapid escalation of unpleasantness - would take us. It seemed that the first act must either end much sooner than first acts usually do or open out into a second scene. In the event, it ended so much sooner than usual that applause was stillborn. (Uncertainly would have been cleared up had the curtain - a rarity at MTC - been dropped before the lights went down.) It was during the second act that I realized that Mr Hortua had cut out almost all dramatic exposition. His characters said nothing about themselves or one another that old friends in the real world wouldn't say. They didn't casually refer to the kind of background issues that clarify matters for complete strangers (such as the audience). While interactions were always perfectly intelligible, a sense of the depth behind those interactions took a long time to develop, at least in my mind. In fact, they were still developing the next day. Haunted by four superb performances, I find myself going back and seeing a little more clearly the characters of each of these four increasingly real people.
At the beginning of the play, two couples - we can sort them out by their dress - walk into a large, bare, mission-style living room. The set, designed by Neil Patel and lighted by Christopher Akerlind, seems underfunded; a leather sofa, a side chair, and two ottomans look like old furniture in a new house, and no match for the splendid bay window with its vista of great plains. Leather-booted Grace (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is doing most of the talking, describing a priest at a wedding. The wedding turns out to have been her own, to Carlo (Bradley White). She is describing it to Sharyl (Kate Jennings Grant) and Joel (David Harbour), who obviously own the house. Sharyl, still willowy but becoming a matron, eventually tells us why she and Joel couldn't attend the wedding, but for an amazingly long time, she plasters bright smiles on the barbs she aims at Joel. Mr Harbour, meanwhile, his hair unkempt and his speech slurred by too much red wine, makes it clear that Joel's Dartmouth T-shirt was chosen, whether by the playwright or by costume designer Jess Goldstein, with some thought. Joel and Carlo, having pursued graduate degrees in photography at NYU some time back, have enjoyed various success. Joel has gone into advertising, and moved to Sharyl's part of the country, which he says he hates, while Carlo has sold several photographs and lined himself up for a promising show. In other words, Joel has sold out and Carlo has remained an artist. The big house suggests that Joel is doing well, while the fact that Carlo and Grace remain on the premises, to sleep on the leather couch, after a nasty but mercifully brief George-and-Martha display by the other couple, indicates that Carlo's good fortune remains prospective. Instead of taking her somewhere else, Carlo assures Grace that he will never talk to her the way Joel talked to Sharyl, and while this doesn't make for the most reverberant first-act finale that I've ever seen, it certainly tightens the screws for the second. The curious theatregoer spends the intermission wondering how the playwright will contrive to reunite his characters when the curtain goes up.
When the curtain goes up, there they all are, standing on a set that tells us how sure Mr Patel is of what he was doing in the first act. The main room - hardly a living room - of the flat that Joel and Grace share in New York is the very opposite of the inner steppe of their old friends' house, but without being a whit more pleasant. It's crammed with books, Kodak boxes, and baby things. Success has become even more prospective, as Carlo and Grace have slipped into a serious debt problem. Matching the change in sets is Joel's breathtaking transformation. His hair shining and combed, his suit and tie quietly opulent, he is no longer the adolescent that he remained as recently as three years earlier. Sharyl wears a flirty red dress that fairly screams that she is a visiting Midwesterner. Sharyl and Joel are in New York to see a few plays and so on. She has convinced Joel to agree to pay this impromptu visit - violating the gravest of New York's rules of conduct - in order to apologize to Grace and Carlo for their awful behavior in the last act, since when they haven't heard a thing from their old friends. Joel has probably gone along with the idea so that he can explain the big change in his life to Carlo. Grace's reception, alert to the extraordinary condescension of this intrusion, couldn't be frostier without being plainly rude.
However awkward and discomfiting, this is also tremendously interesting, because the illusion of being in the room with four people ignorant of the future is complete. This time, of course, it is Grace and Carlo who are having problems, but everything they say and do contrasts with the way Joel and Sharyl behaved in the first act, and very, very gradually the huge gulf between the status of these two couples emerges as a hitherto unseen fourth dimension. Grace will call explicit attention to it toward the end of the play, but by then it's no surprise; Joel's reference to trust funds, relevant now although it wouldn't have been in the first act, has made us realize that Joel and Sharyl come from a world of privilege where most difficulties are interior, while Grace and Carlo are talented mortals swimming against a current of opportunity. Standing in the shabby apartment, well-groomed Joel looks like a visitor from another planet, but one unaware of this fact. The American idea that mixing people from different backgrounds during their formative years will make for lifelong friendships falls far short of the laws of nature. Joel no longer inhabits, and no longer misses inhabiting, the bohemia of grad school. His life is not perfect, and of course he has to attend AA meetings, but his seriousness is real, if somewhat deadening. I'm not sure what Mr Hortua wants us to think about the way his characters' lives have worked out; he may hate the bourgeoisie. But Mr Harbour's Joel is not a symbol of class warfare. He's a guy whose life really was turned around one afternoon when, driving around drunk and crying about the breakup of his marriage, he stumbled upon a small country church, with a priest in the confessional who assured him that 'it's all right.' One can laugh, as Carlo laughs, at this enlightening; one can deride the American solipsism of a 'poignant moment' in which it is revealed that all is okay. And Mr Harbour infuses Joel's awakening with a touch of fatuousness. Nevertheless, someone who used to behave like a teenager with money now genuinely means well. What Between Us really delivers is a pair of couples whose lives inhabit radically different climates.
The play became riveting for me when, long after I'd left the theatre, I realized that, in its refusal to judge its characters or to work out their all-too-human inconsistencies, Mr Hortua's play presents a vivid picture not only of what I call ordinary life but also of what conservatives mean when they deplore 'relativism.' Relativism, I saw for the first time, is not the rather silly idea that people would differ about serious moral questions if they were allowed to do so, but the more noxious notion that differences about relatively minor - oops! - moral questions can undermine general unanimity about what constitutes law and order. Nothing could be more patriarchal than acute anxiety about slippery slopes, and the best way to avoid them is to avoid all divergences, whether in thought, word, or deed. However, the modern discovery that orthodoxies, far from being self-evident, are determined by powerful individuals, and tailored to their idiosyncrasies, has probably doomed the idea of orthodoxy itself. That Between Us ends with a riddle - what's going to happen to an important piece of paper that Joel leaves behind? - will probably annoy the conventional mind; once again, a playwright has thwarted our longing for 'closure.' But I saw instead an invitation to consider all the possibilities that it opened up. That's what I mean by moral reflection.
If I have a bone to pick, it's the red herring of Catholicism. That all four characters were brought up as Catholics means, in the end, very little, and I could see nothing in the action that flowed from or up against a Catholic sensibility. Joel's conversion experience had a decidedly protestant feeling to me, confessional notwithstanding. To kick off a play with references to a cryptically nubile priest is to raise some very distracting expectations, and it took me ten minutes at least to be sure that the play wasn't going to involve former altar boys wrestling with going public about molestation.
I say that Between Us really gripped me long after it was over. That it did so was surely thanks to Christopher Ashley's wonderfully detailed direction of an usually fine cast. (May 2004)
Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press