If you see “Least Likely Friends” (and I think you should), you may find yourself halfway through Tonya Bludsworth’s drama wondering why you are there.
Four college sorority sisters have come together after the death of a fifth, whom each thought of as her own best friend – even though the dead woman never told them she had cancer.
For the first hour of this intermissionless, 90-minute play, their reunion before the funeral service follows a familiar path.
Cheerfully religious Mary (Chandler McIntyre) mildly resents the success of her former roommate, writer Jessica (Paige Johnston Thomas), and doesn’t approve of Jessica’s multiple divorces. Amiable schoolteacher Abbie (Iesha Hoffman) vows she won’t referee between them but does so anyway. Artist Robin (Donna Scott) bobs around the edge of the Mary-Jessica scrum and adds an occasional wry (and gently stinging) comment.
Then a phone call changes things completely. Rivalries resurface; betrayals become apparent; the psyche of one of the four crumbles, as revelations and recriminations come in a swarm.
I didn’t see Bludsworth’s first play, “Carrie Ann’s Kiss,” a comedy set in the competitive world of cosmetics sales. (It had two brief successful runs in Charlotte in the last decade.)
But I doubt it would prepare audiences for this outing. Bludsworth doesn’t send us out of the theater feeling that every problem among these four friends can be solved. Sometimes, she’s saying, people and relationships can be broken irreparably.
The story feels a bit compressed; it was originally longer and written in two acts, and I’d guess the removed intermission came just after the first revelation of cracks in one character’s façade. Bludsworth has also written two of the participants as combatants and the other two more as onlookers, a kind of reduced chorus from ancient Greek tragedies: They were affected by what happened long ago and is happening now, but they remain at the edge of the emotional cyclone.
Yet the writing holds our attention, once we get used to the sudden change in the rhythm. It’s touching, if blunt, and we empathize with everyone by the end.
Bludsworth has long known all but one of the actresses: McIntyre and Scott are old friends and former collaborators, and Johnston Thomas hired her to work at the casting agency C&J. So she knows what they’ll sound like onstage and has played to their strengths in her writing. Hoffman took a part written for another of Bludsworth’s friends (who dropped due to conflicts), but she fits smoothly into the well-knit ensemble.
Bludsworth also makes her full-length directing debut. It’s physically uncomplicated – it takes place entirely in the living room of Jessica’s sterile New York apartment – so Bludsworth’s direction has focused more on performance than movement.
The impetus to write “Friends” came out of Bludsworth’ less satisfactory experience three years ago in “The Dixie Swim Club,” another female-centric piece produced by Scott (who produced “Friends” with Chuck Bludsworth, Tonya’s husband).
The author wanted to place her characters in conflict without relying on a faux happy ending and with more truthful eruptions of feelings. Bludsworth has achieved the honesty she sought, and she’s done so with craft and care.
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