Allow me to suggest, to playwrights in search of a New Year’s resolution, that they quietly abandon the dysfunctional family as source material for the next 12 months. Let‘s face it — all those dark secrets that alcoholically bubble to the surface whenever a son returns to the incestual home have turned the American stage into a vaudeville of recrimination and regret. There are certainly other portals into the soul besides the Reunion, perhaps none more overlooked than what I’d call the Friendly Visit. Literature, after all, is filled with characters who have learned the hard way that the cocktail-hour knock on the front door signals the beginning of the end, from Edward Albee‘s tormented academics in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to any number of gin-soaked card players in Raymond Carver‘s short stories.
The visitors in the genre I’m thinking of may be next-door neighbors or they may be work colleagues, but they must be a couple (to provide mirror-reversed images of the hosts) and childless (insuring there are no distractions that might detour the action outside the adult world). 8 Ways To Meet Your Neighbor, William Kevin McCauley‘s brief evening of scenes from neighborly first visits, currently playing at the Tamarind Theater, is a comically jaundiced yet honest examination of relationships and their insecure foundations.
The setup is the same for all eight vignettes: Hosts Jane and Robert (Andrea Beutner and Michael Loomis) await their guests with varying degrees of loathing or anticipation. When neighbors Harriet and Tom (Ann Randolph and Marc Vann) arrive, an informal combat erupts: Sometimes it takes the form of childish one-upmanship, while other times it resembles George and Martha’s sadistic parlor games of “Get the Guest” and “Hump the Hostess” in Virginia Woolf. Refereeing the start of these war games is an Announcer (Peter Staloch), a grim-faced guide who delivers the droll titles of each segment (“The Jackals,” “Communication Matters”) and looks dressed for dinner but acts as though he were officiating at a wake.
The show begins with a rapid-movement piece in which the Announcer describes the various stages of social activity (e.g., “false and premature confidence”) that define a Friendly Visit, from the moment the door is opened to when Harriet returns to retrieve her forgotten handbag. It‘s a choreography of slapstick compression that encapsulates social awkwardness at its funniest. In “Out of the Body, Into the Fire,” Jane suddenly slumps in her chair and comes to with the observation, “I suddenly lost consciousness.” This sets in motion an unlikely marshaling of the paranormal gifts each of the quartet apparently possesses (out-of-body experience, near-death traveling, spirit channeling) and ends in a tableau mort reminiscent of a Charles Addams cartoon.
The best moments by far are those capturing the power plays between jaded hosts and nervous visitors, as when Robert and Jane stalk about the room accusing Harriet and Tom of pilfering their belongings or planting suggestions of wife swapping. Here McCauley lightly but unmistakably taps a raw nerve, for loss of social and physical control provides the underlying thrill and dread of most real-life two-on-two visits. It is the unspoken possibility of extramarital sex that often charges even the most innocuous Friendly Visit with static electricity and nausea, and explains the tremendous pressures that such visitations usually exert upon love affairs and marriages.
McCauley flawlessly directs a talented cast that nimbly personifies these strains, which is why 8 Ways packs a punch out of proportion to its format. Their costuming and grooming tip us off that visitors Randolph and Vann are the somewhat dowdy intruders, while cocktail-party-attired hosts Beutner and Loomis are the slick predators lying in wait. Harriet’s sad attempts to control her anxieties provide us with a character study in mood swings and also give the show a strangely anachronistic resonance, as though we were watching how people tried to interact in a long-ago America when socializing was important to people — before that need was replaced by the desire to hold tiny gadgets that blinked green and red light, or to attend spectacles whose deafening music guarantees the impossibility of conversation.