It’s pretty safe to say that most people have a moment in their life where they feel trapped, longing for an escape. Whether it be trapped in work or in love or just the general strain of life. Hannah is no different in Friends Don’t Let Friends. Less Than Rent, an ambitious and wonderfully triumphant group of talented young theater artists, present a reimaging of the Henrik Ibsen classic Hedda Gabler in a modern day world where Hannah, a character on the fictional sitcom “Reel Deal”, takes on a similar saga like Hedda. Only in Hannah’s world, her realities are severely blurred.
Adaptations can be hard. You need a niche to make it original. Playwright James Presson has skillfully taken the classic story and placed it in the sitcom world of “Reel Deal.” Each character personifies Ibsen’s characters. Becca Ballenger’s, in a tour de force role, Hannah is Hedda. Cory Asinofsky’s George is Tesman. Jason Zeren’s Isaac is Lovberg. Will Turner’s Brad is Brack. And the list goes on. As the line of sitcom and real life are blurred, so is the basic plot. The known plot drifts back and forth within the sitcom and when Hannah breaks from the show. The world inside the sitcom plays off of the classic form that we know and love from sitcoms. Stock characters forced into funny situations, occasionally accompanied with physical comedy. George is a mix of Seinfeld and Ross Geller. Beth is the ditzy secondary character who’s not all quite there like Phoebe. Hannah is the generic leading lady driven daffy by the obtrusive laugh track. And then there is Brad who is the goofball best friend. But Will Turner shines when he breaks from his sitcom persona, as does the play. By far the best moments of the play are when the bright lights snap off from the sitcom and the stark reality appears. Hannah is a broken person who desires guidance. She gets those moments when non show Brad has a heart to heart with Hannah and when Hannah goes to an unlikely source for advice. Though he only gets one solid scene of dialogue, Tommy Hettrick as stagehand Henry uses every moment he’s given. His genuine and sincere character is the most grounded and realistic character in the play. The ensemble as a whole had a tremendous undertaking of flipping from world to world. They seemed to handle the task well. Each character had their moment. Some of the most intriguing and amusing moments came from the Jason Zeren, who played the divaliciously zany and outlandish Isaac.
Rachel Buethe did a fine job directing the piece. She placed comedy when comedy was needed. She directed the off camera moments with ease and tenderness. The inclusion of a four and a half person ensemble (as one of the actors had lines) as stagehands was a clever decision. Though they occasionally stayed on set a tad too long at moments, they really helped set the tone of blurring the lines. Scenic designer Caite Hevner created a color splash of a sitcom set with the brilliant upper level reveal of the show’s stars’ dressing room. Lighting designer Ryan Seelig helped define the line of show and real life with the stark difference in color. The coolness and drab of reality was more comforting than the warm sitcom light. Gifford Williams knew exactly how to create a sitcom atmosphere. Just as it drove Hannah batty, the laugh track just kept going and going and driving me mad, even when the lines weren’t funny. As did the consistent theme song supplied by the band the Fratellis. But perhaps that was the point.
I'll say it again. Adaptation is hard. I know from experience. But James Presson does a fine job. I appreciated when Ibsen’s plot was present and the liberties he took to create his own Hedda. I waited to find out if Friends would end similarly to Hedda, and boy was I pleasantly happy how it ended!