May 27, 2016

If there’s anything impossible to parody successfully onstage, or for that matter, off, it’s performance art. That’s a minor mistake Sofia Alvarez makes in her new play, “Friend Art,” an otherwise insightful comedy-drama about the evolving relationships among four friends living in New York. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the play, at the McGinn/Cazale Theater as part of Second Stage Uptown’s summer season, begins with its artist character, Lil (Anabelle LeMieux), nattering on about her childhood fears, her only prop being, for some unfathomable reason, a cantaloupe. Still, it does put you in immediate sympathy with her friends in the audience, Kevin (Aaron Costa Ganis) and Molly (Zoe Chao), an engaged couple who find themselves in the awkward position of burbling generic enthusiasm about the performance. Before Lil arrives to receive their tepid congratulations, Kevin remarks to Molly that one advantage of their imminent move to Virginia, where he will go to law school, is that they will be spared such endurance tests. While Kevin and Molly, a former actor who now works at a law firm herself, appear to be on steady career and domestic tracks, the same cannot be said for Lil and Nate (Constantine Maroulis), a onetime one-hit rock star, who have recently broken up but remain friends. Over drinks Lil even finds herself defending Nate against Kevin’s casual remark that his cheating proved he didn’t love her. “Friend Art” — the dud title refers to art that only your loyal friends will come out to support — explores the characters’ varying attitudes toward love, sex, careers and other fundamental matters that tend to be angst-causing in early-to-middle adulthood. Although the characters are slightly older, it has a loose, comic vibe similar to “Girls,” as the characters engage in some anxious self-examination — and other-directed criticism — while they negotiate subtle changes in their affections for one another. It’s not long, for example, before tensions arise when Lil presses Molly for more specific responses to the performance, and Molly admits she didn’t really “get this one.” When Nate runs into Molly at an art opening — she’s there because her boss is married to an artist in the show; he’s there because as a minor celebrity he’s being paid to attend — their idle talk hints at flirtation, or so Molly concludes, only to be told, um, no. Perhaps most surprisingly — and implausibly, given his muttered contempt for her work — Kevin, when he runs into Lil, offers to introduce her to a musician friend who might help make her work more, say, accessible. (When we later see the results, they are not very convincing, I’m afraid.) Mr. Maroulis, a former “American Idol” finalist and a Tony nominee for “Rock of Ages,” has bloomed into a fine actor. As Nate, the most easygoing of the characters, content to coast along and take things as they come, he gives a wonderfully sensitive performance. He’s particularly touching during a scene in which a rattled Molly, who’s become prickly about Kevin’s increasing involvement in Lil’s work, reaches a little too enthusiastically for the cocaine he brings out. Nate tries to talk her down, and Mr. Maroulis nicely conveys how a mellow guy — one who shruggingly admits he cheated on his girlfriend — is also a man who takes friendship as seriously as anyone, and remains loyal and loving even when friction arises. Mr. Ganis defines Kevin’s ambivalence about his move to law school, as doubt begins to chip away at the idea when he becomes excited about Lil’s work. Ms. Chao also nails the notes of anxious insecurity that begin to rattle Molly when she senses Kevin’s emotional withdrawal — or is it hers? “Is it weird that the time we’ve been engaged has been the most distant we’ve ever been in our relationship?” she asks Nate. Ms. LeMieux has the toughest chore as Lil, particularly during those performance interludes. She’s better when Lil is defensive or in attack mode, when she intuits Molly’s irritation with her work, and credits it to jealousy. Your affection for “Friend Art,” which has been directed smoothly by Portia Krieger, may depend upon how much interest you have in listening to people in their 30s worry over their not exactly momentous problems. At times, “Friend Art” comes close to feeling like, well, friend art — of interest primarily to people who may not actually be friends with the show’s creators and performers, but know a lot of people like them. Nonetheless, the play has enough biting, aware humor to move us past the navel-gazing aspects. I liked, in particular, Molly’s funny rant about how attitudes toward work and life have evolved since the 1980s. “Don’t you hate how everyone calls their hobbies their jobs now?” she rails. “Like in the ’80s you’d be like, ‘Oh, that girl is really into crafts,’ and now you have to be like, ‘Oh, she’s a ceramicist.’” “I dated a ceramicist once,” Nate observes, to which an unmollified Molly snaps, “Of course you did.”