If you’ve ever read Eric Jerome Dickey’s second novel, Friends and Lovers, then you know the story well. The 1997 best-seller weaves the tale of two sets of best friends who fall in love together, yet end up in very different relationships.
As love takes it winding course, adultery, betrayal and tragedy befall the group of friends and force them to reevaluate the strength of the bonds between them. Adapted for stage and directed by newcomers Je’Caryous Johnson and Gary Guidry, Friends and Lovers appeared at The Merriam Theater last week to thousands seeking an on-stage performance just as strong as the novel.
Best friends Debra and Shelby, played by Monica Calhoun and Stacy Francis, find themselves swept up into relationships once again after swearing off men completely.
Shelby pairs with Tyrel, an upwardly mobile twenty-something brought to life on stage by the frightfully thin B-list actor Leon. Debra cozies up to Tyrel’s best friend Leonard, a hilarious comedian played by Miguel A. Nuñez.
Predictably, the couples fall in love. While Debra and Leonard struggle with the challenge of celibacy, Tyrel must reject his unscrupulous ex-girlfriend (Maia Campbell) and hold onto Shelby at once. As Tyrel attempts to fight his ex off, Shelby becomes pregnant. Disappointed when her man refuses to step his game up and commit, she hits the road solo and faces the biggest decision of her life.
The couple is reunited when the unexpected death of Leonard brings Shelby back into the picture, although with a fiancé in tow.
Much of the time, the stage script of Friends and Lovers strays from the original novel. The skeleton of Dickey’s story remains, but Johnson and Guidry take many liberties with details.
Chiquita, a supporting character played by comedienne Trina Jeffrie appears in Dickey’s first novel, but definitely not in Friends and Lovers.
She and the overweight self-proclaimed “teddy bear” Bobby, played by Lavell Crawford, develop an off-beat relationship that almost overshadows those involving the main characters. Finally, unlike the book, the play’s focus rests primarily on interaction between the friends and does little to develop the individual characters.
Another downfall of this stage adaptation is the singing. The first musical performance appeared more than an hour into the play. It seemed that after the first one, Johnson and Guidry wanted to make up for lost opportunities by sticking in as many solos in the last act as they possibly could. It doesn’t work.
Though they miss with the live performances, the team’s use of recorded music is on point. During a scene at a nightclub, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” prompts the cast to form a line and replicate the pop icon’s choreography. Later, when Tyrel finally meets Shelby’s fiancé Richard (Mel Jackson), the two sit down to chat and as both stare aimlessly into the audience and The O’Jays classic, “She Used to Be My Girl” begins to play.
Arguably, the best performance of the eight-member ensemble comes from Miguel A. Nuñez, whose own stand-up experience shines through in his portrayal of Leonard the comedian.
Nuñez also showed his ability to improvise when during his proposal scene with Calhoun, a male audience member advised him not to make The Leap. Cocking his ear to the ceiling and looking outward, Nuñez asked, “Is that you, Lord?” Also quick to the draw, his on-stage love reassured him, “No, it ain’t nothin’ but the devil.”
If you like Eric Jerome Dickey, Friends and Lovers could be worth seeing. The book is much better, but if you enjoy stage plays and the cramped rows at The Merriam, the world is yours. It’s definitely not a contender for the Tony Awards, but Johnson and Guidry’s adaptation is interesting, to say the least.
Though its first run at The Merriam Theater ended on Nov. 7, Friends and Lovers is scheduled to return to Philly on Nov. 23-28. For ticket info, visit www.ticket-master.com.
Benae Mosby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.