The setup: a group of twentysomethings who sit around, meddle with each other's lives and drink a whole lot of coffee.
No, it's not "Friends." It's "Black Coffee," a new play written and directed by Barbara Matteau, playing this weekend at the Leverett Old Library.
"Black Coffee" aims to look realistically at relationships among people stalled at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. In this vein, it usually succeeds. Matteau does not shove any moral platitudes into her characters' mouths, and she manages to make the main characters interesting in only ten short scenes.
All five of these Gen-Xers work at Bowl and Brass, a cheesy Crate & Barrell/Pier One hybrid. Using flashblacks and present-day scenes, Matteau tells a series of interlinking stories about the protagonist Jen, her slacker-poet boyfriend Joe, Joe's exgirlfriend (and Jen's ex-best friend) Joan, Jen's boss Jack, who nurses crushes on both her and Joan, and June, the dippy new shift supervisor.
The center of the plot is Jen and Joe's relationship, which began after Jen stole him from her best friend Joan. As the play opens, Joan is transferring to another branch of Bowl and Brass to avoid the situation. Meanwhile, the people Joan leaves behind have to deal with the mess they've created for themeselves.
When we meet Jen, she is a first-class flirt with few qualms about stealing other people's men. As the play progresses, though, we see more of Jen's insecurities, as she struggles with maintaining her authority at work and her self-confidence at home, all without the aid of a college degree.
Judith Quinones is a complex Jen, impossibly confident upfront, but embarrassed to admit her fears about her career and her love life.
Mike Seid's Joe is the classic stereotypical poet: sloppy, wavering, unable to keep a job and inexplicably attractive to women. "On the edges of the world," he proclaims to a love-struck Joan, "the poet stands sentinel." Only his trust fund keeps him afloat as he drifts from job to job and woman to woman.
Jen and Joe's relationship is key to the success of the play, since they have the most time together on stage, but their interactions are uneven. Sometimes their dialogue is crisp and their banter realistic, but occasionally the lines, and subsequently the acting, are stiff and stilted. It's hard to make much of a relationship which consists primarily of drinking coffee and having sex, but Quinones and Seid manage to make it interesting most of the time.
The minor characters are naturally less developed. We don't see enough of Joan (Erin Pond) or Jack (Matthew L. Leavitt) to understand them or care about them. Too much is left unsaid. Was there a flirtation between them? Does Jack really pine for Jen? What was the real nature of Jen and Joan's friendship?
Sarah Price's manic June only appears at the end of the play: long enough for her incessant rambling and baby-doll voice to amuse, but thankfully not so long as to annoy.
"Black Coffee" is an intimate play: there are few characters, the set is only three rooms and the lighting is minimal. This sparseness is effective for establishing the inter-relationships and self-absorption of the characters.
But some of the little details are wanting. Scene changes could benefit from background music to mask the sounds of moving furniture and unzipping clothes. Jen's apartment seems to have only one room, including a miraculous bookcase which serves as not only a cupboard and a refrigerator, but also a stove for cooking invisible spaghetti. Joan seems to have no personal possessions. When she and Jen go to a cafe, Joan has neither purse nor pockets. Inexplicably, Jen and Jack are dressed identically in the final scene.
All in all, "Black Coffee" is a harmless, sometimes unnerving look at the kind of lives we could be leading in a year or two. While most of the play is decent, it's not quite the "diamond in the midst of cubic zirconia" the play's posters claim it to be.