Actor-writers Alex Trow and Meghan Longhran dance their way through a long-running friendship in their world premiere play “F Theory,” opening August 19 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS
At a time when accumulating social media “friends” is a pursuit of quantity over quality, a brick-and-mortar buddy seems a thing valued above gold. But Odd Couples aside, the dynamics of long-running friendships have seldom been granted the same attention that dramatists have heaped upon romantic partnerships, or good old familial dysfunction.
In “F Theory,” a pair of young actor-playwrights seek to address that deficit, with a study of a stressed friendship that’s rooted in the happier real-life alliance of its authors and stars, Meghan Longhran and Alex Trow. The play debuts this weekend, as the latest world premiere production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — and as the two Yale classmates explain, it’s a project that fast-tracked its way to fully staged fruition when they involved another friend from their college-days circle of acquaintance.
This is the second NJ Rep outing for Trow, who co-starred in 2016’s “Mad Love” — and who used that opportunity to show producers Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas a script that she’d worked on with her friend Longhran, whose own solo writing credits include the widely viewed online sketch “Resting Bitch Body” for Elizabeth Banks’ site whohaha.com. The response from the Rep founders (“We’ll take it!”) prompted the two to intensify their collaboration, on what began as an exercise in which each took turns writing alternating scenes by themselves.
“It went from something tidy and individualized, to…now it’s hard to figure where each person’s contribution begins and ends,” says Longhran, a young touring company veteran of the fabled Second City troupe. Trow — who, like Longhran, honed her comic improv skills by training with the Upright Citizens Brigade — adds that audiences will be seeing something that’s “100 percent different” from what was mapped out, little more than a year and a half ago.
With “F Theory” green-lighted for a slot on NJ Rep’s schedule, the co-authors caught the attention of another Yale classmate, Heartbeat Opera co-founder Ethan Heard, when he witnessed a living-room reading of the script earlier this year. Having previously dealt with the logistics of works like Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” the director is “gratified and nourished to be working on a two-person play…one of the joys is the comedy and improvisational skills of Meg and Alex; we’re constantly incorporating discoveries into the script.”
While the women do duty as a half-dozen or so characters, the primary roles are those of Marianne and Ellie — roomies at an unspecified college who, despite coming from different swaths of society, form the kind of bond that sees them “break out into tap dancing routines” at the slightest provocation. As the characters progress from their 18 year old selves to adulthood over the course of ten scenes, their paths diverge — with Marianne (Trow) following a predestined course of money, marriage and professional success. At the same time, artistically gifted Ellie (Longhran) — a former prodigy left penniless by a close family member — lives the solitary life of a struggling musician, as the women come to realize that each expects and sees something different in their common bond.
Further testing the relationship is the fact that Marianne is conducting a scientific study of the friendship from a behavioral psychology angle, even as Ellie mines it as material for some highly personal songs. It’s a development about which Trow (whose role of Marianne will be performed by NJ Rep regular Pheonix Vaughn during the weekend of September 16-17) observes, “their friendship with each other is their ultimate shared interest…it’s something they can sink their teeth into, but it tastes different to each one.”
“I love playing with the dynamics of this play,” observes director Heard, praising the challenges of an intimately scaled production that features dancing, original music (via the songs composed by Ellie) and “tons of quick changes…the design of the show (by Jessica Parks) is almost a playground, depending on how the set elements are stacked, turned and moved around…and the actors are just heroes, in their energy and endurance.”
For her part, Longhran praises the opportunity to work with NJ Rep, particularly during a summertime interlude in which “we’re staying in a beautiful house with a grill and a deck…and we get to talk about the play while we go to the beach. The work/play mentality functions really well here!”
Previewing on August 18 at 8 p.m. and August 19 at 3 p.m., “F Theory” opens on Saturday night, August 19, continues on August 20 and Thursdays through Sundays until September 24. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($46; opening night $50) are available by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.