When was the last time a playwright made their debut in the West End with a brand-new play without a prior try-out production elsewhere? The last one I can think of is Kate Betts, whose play On the Third Day was produced at the Ambassadors in 2006 after she won the television playwriting competition, The Play’s the Thing.
Matthew Perry has a head start on Betts in that he has TV fame already as one of the cast of the 1990s sitcom Friends, and by playing one of the play’s leads himself he’s also providing the producers with a star name. An extra frisson is given to things by the play’s clear autobiographical shadings. Nearly 20 years ago Perry had the first of a number of stints in rehab and here he plays a determined alcoholic furiously trying to numb the pain of existence in drink: “Is there a vodka vending machine in this place?”, he asks in a hospital waiting room. When his character meets and falls in love with a (very) high-class escort – her call-out rate is $2,500 an hour – the stage is set for either co-dependency issues, or – as it inevitably turns out – an attempt for them both to change their ways. Meanwhile, their respective best friends embark on a new relationship of their own, and when a pregnancy crisis affects the other woman, they are each given a wake-up call.
Much of this feels superficial, the emotions phoney and barely earned, with Perry writing in short, choppy scenes interspersed with direct address, a series of monologues in which the characters express their thoughts to the audience. Lindsay Posner’s glossily designed and snappy production keeps it moving fast enough, and there are very strong performances from Perry’s co-stars Jennifer Mudge (as his new girlfriend), Lloyd Owen and Christina Cole as the friends. This all serves to make it a more watchable experience than the material really deserves.