As the great Eighties philosopher Cyndi Lauper once promised us, money changes everything. Playwright Dorothy Fortenberry explores how finances and emotions converge in marriage and in friendship in her new play “Partners,” currently making its world premiere in what is, so far, a very strong Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Directed by Lila Neugebauer, “Partners” is a smart, entertaining and insightful examination of power dynamics and painful transitions in adult relationships. For Humana Festival veterans, it’s the realistic, linear dramedy about contemporary relationships in this year’s line-up. “Partners” runs through April 6 in the Bingham Theatre.
The play opens on a dinner party in a cramped IKEA-outfitted Brooklyn apartment (Daniel Zimmerman’s set is pitch-perfect) – just four young professionals drinking wine and cracking wise about the New York Times’ Sunday Styles section, as you do. The tone is gossipy and lightweight (and a bit familiar for those in the demographic) at first – this isn’t a play that opens with a sense of urgency, but stay with it, because when an unexpected financial windfall hits, all four characters’ principles on marriage, friendship, money and responsibility are questioned in very intriguing ways.
It’s one thing to be on the same page about money when nobody has any, but once it’s introduced, the tensions between ideals and self-interest collide. Once Fortenberry has all of the stakes on the table, the conflicts between all four characters, in their various states of promise and suspicion, become fascinating case studies in the psychological effects of power and money.
Clare (Annie Purcell) is an aspiring chef, married to affable Paul (David Ross), with plans to open a food truck with her best friend Ezra (Kasey Mahaffy), an aimless temp who’s finally focused on building a career. Clare is pushing for Ezra to marry his “perfect” boyfriend Brady (LeRoy McClain), and at times seems more interested in Ezra and Brady’s potential marriage than in her own.
Both Clare and Ezra rely on their partners’ relative financial stability for support as they continue to flounder in persistent underachievement that you sense might have been cute when they were undergrads but is wearing thin as they enter their thirties. While Ezra thinks the food truck is the answer, he has to fight Clare’s tendency toward inertia and self-sabotage, the latter of which manifests itself quite spectacularly all over her face (she has, frankly, a quite gross habit of picking at her skin).
They’re both too old to still be playing at adulthood, but there they are. Ezra’s heartbreaking hypothetical question to Clare about whether they might be one mistake away from completely squandering their potential is a familiar one to creatives who might take longer to establish their careers than they once expected. But he’s not keen to take what might be seen as the easy short-cut – marrying Brady, who has a steady job and support from his country club-set parents – because marriage comes with its own set of emotional compromises that, while titillating to Clare, are all too painful for Ezra.
All four actors deliver grounded performances that at times make watching this play in the voyeuristic fishbowl of the Bingham feel like eavesdropping on people I know in passing, or have been at some point in my own life. The play is ably staged in tight quarters, and when the action does break out briefly from the two couples’ living spaces, the requirements are flexible enough to keep the play firmly in four-people-and-a-living-room regional theatre budget-friendly territory.
That’s important for the play’s future production life, but not as important as the intriguing, voltaile relationships Fortenberry has created and the relevant, personal debates her intelligent script can spark. Like Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians,” this play is a conversation-starter, one I expect to lead to spirited debates among couples and friends in the hours after the show.