Joe Hortua’s Between Us begins with red wine served out of fine crystal and ends with milk shakes sipped through plastic straws. These libationary extremes embody not only the economic disparities of the play’s two principal couples—a wealthy Midwest husband and wife and their less wealthy (and less WASP-ish) friends from New York—but also their temperamental antagonisms. One couple bickers while the other sits mute; one is professionally secure while the other faces unemployment; one is happy while the other is miserable. A highly schematic operetta of thirtysomething angst, Between Us unfolds as a series of contrapuntal emotional skirmishes, though its subtext plays more like a variation on the law of entropy: Sooner or later, every relationship turns to shit, or at least a messy milk shake.
Hosting a dinner party in their spacious suburban home, Joel and Sharyl (David Harbour and Kate Jennings Grant) abruptly announce they’re getting a divorce, much to the surprise of their college friends Carlo and Grace (Bradley White and Daphne Rubin-Vega). This marital fissure prompts a structural one: The play jumps ahead three years to find Joel and Sharyl, now happily reconciled, paying an unannounced visit to the one-bedroom apartment of their friends, whose once solid relationship is now in question. As in Donald Margulies’s Dinner With Friends, Hortua’s marital quartet amiably disgorges never ending streams of chitchat before launching into full combat mode. By its downbeat close, however, Between Us suggests a more youthful (and far less articulate) version of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, primarily in the way one couple’s happiness precludes the other’s, but also in its resigned cynicism—a sentiment that can feel earned when expressed by middle-aged characters but that seems little more than fashionable posing when enacted by Hortua’s younger set.
Though it features sharply drawn performances (Rubin-Vega nails her character’s socioeconomic displacement in four words: “Wesleyan, Columbia, Yale . . . Hofstra”), this ostensibly character-driven drama ultimately relies on scenic design to communicate personality—Crate & Barrel minimalism for its upscale pair, thrift-store clutter for its urban duo. Director Christopher Ashley keeps the action breezily laid-back even as the play takes on a pseudo-philosophical urgency. The formerly alcoholic, born-again Joel offers to loan money to Carlo, who’s out of work and heavily in debt. Should he accept, or is this merely guilt payment, a belated acknowledgment that Carlo was always the more talented of the two? This stab at dramatic ambiguity is itself woefully belated, and just as condescending in its beseeching, see-through earnestness.