Thanks to the title, the audience knows exactly where “How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them” is going. The only question is whether to go along with it.
The answer is maybe, and maybe not. One of the first full-length works by young playwright and actress Halley Feiffer, the show tells the story of a pair of dysfunctional sisters and the outcast girl they adopt as their one and only friend. The problem is, Feiffer doesn’t want us to like any on them.
Over about 90 minutes, we follow the girls from childhood and high school through college and afterward, in repetitive scenes of in which the emotions spiral ever downward.
The dialogue is caustic and cruel, from “Will you bruise me so (our alcoholic) Mom will pay more attention to me?” to repeated refrains of “Stop asking me to validate you” and “I wanna die, I wanna die so hard.”
The girls we meet in the opening scenes are nearly identical to the women who bring the show to a close, and that is Feiffer’s biggest problem.
Everyone suffers, but no one learns, no one grows, and, though they are unlikable, no one deserves the punishment she receives.
On the up side, there may be no more intimate stage in Buffalo than the space American Repertory Theater of WNY has created behind the Sportsmen’s Tavern on Amherst Street, and that creates an energy that would be lost at a greater distance from the players.
The three women in the cast also keep that energy flowing. Melissa Levin and Sue McCormack as the mean sisters Ada and Sam relish their mutual closeness and nastiness, while Mara Westerling-Morris as the doomed friend Dorrie couldn’t be more oblivious. And we mean that in a good way.
The problem for the performers is that Feiffer gives them nowhere to take their characters. Brash, beautiful Ada talks of smoking, drinking and casual sex as a girl, and then devotes her life to smoking, drinking and casual sex as an adult. Levin wears the role boldly, stalking and staggering across the boards in dangerously high heels, declaring she needs nothing while fearing she will lose everything.
Sam, on the other hand, is more conscious of appearances and adjusts her behavior accordingly. Unlike Ada, who simply grabs what she wants, Sam is more calculating and cautious -- a tightrope McCormack walks well.
The outsider Dorrie arrives with more afflictions than most people can collect in a lifetime --early onset acne, IBS, fibromyalgia, mild ADHD and a limp she tries to hide. When Ada takes her under a wing, and then Sam enters the picture, poor Dorrie thinks she is doubly rich in friends.
We feel sorry for her from the start, but that changes. Westerling-Morris’s plays Dorrie as the simplest of souls, but one who almost relishes her mistreatment by the sisters. She even does a happy little twerk while bending over to clean up after drunken Ada. By laughing we become complicit in her abuse.
By the time it is all over, Ada and Sam are almost exactly back where they started. But these gals are no tornado-blown Dorothys, returning to Kansas realizing there’s no place like home. For Ada and Sam, home is no place they ever really wanted to be. It’s just that they have nowhere else to go.
"How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them"
2 stars (out of 4)
A dark look at the dysfunctional relationships of two lost sisters and the social outcast they befriend. Presented by American Repertory Theatre of WNY, 330 Amherst St., through Nov. 19. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $20 general, $15 for students and military with ID; available at the door or at artofwny.org.