Having a blast with Friends from the past

A parody to carry TV’s most famous twenty-somethings forward will hit the stage in Chicago next month, leading to a search for the right Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, Ross and Joey

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 11:13pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 11:13pm

Amanda Marcheschi looks like a Rachel. Definitely Aniston-esque. She has dark, longish hair and a self-possession that cracks slightly when she speaks, revealing a touch of uncertainty. She is standing at the bar in the lobby of Stage 773 in Chicago and talking to herself. She’s speaking furiously, waving a finger in the air at whatever imaginary fool she’s telling off, mouthing a speech she has clearly rehearsed. However, her nasal, Long Island whine, just barely audible, tells a different story: she has figured she’s more of a Janice than a Rachel, more like Chandler’s on-again-off-again girlfriend on Friends.

“But here’s the thing,” she says, breaking character. “I wanted to be Monica. I wanted to be Monica, but the producers of this play want fat Monica. I’m not fat Monica! I’m guessing overweight women auditioning are like, ‘Yes! Fat Monica!’ But when I saw fat Monica on the [casting] sheet, I was thinking: ‘No, but I’m Monica!’ “ There are lots of parts to go around.

Besides, The One That’s a Play – a planned stage parody of the NBC sitcom Friends, written by first-time Chicago playwright Eileen Byrne- Richards – is not even a play at this point. It’s more of a good idea, a proposal for a play, an in-character read-through of a script being staged (on March 5 in Chicago) with the hopes of attracting investors for a full theatrical version. That may sound pie in the sky, but The Real Live Brady Bunch, itself a slightseeming sitcom satire, started in Chicago in 1991, became a smash success that played for years and helped launch the careers of Jane Lynch, Andy Richter and co-creator Jill Soloway, who recently won a Golden Globe for her Amazon series Transparent.

And so, despite a snowy night, the lobby of Stage 773 is bustling with possible Rachels, Rosses, Chandlers, Phoebes, Monicas and, every so often, a Joey – everyone pacing, reciting to themselves, preparing to audition for a work that may one day be something more.

Chadwick Sutton is standing in a corner and going over and over a monologue he has prepared. He wears a sports coat and looks like, maybe, a Ross? “Friends say I act like a Joey. So I’m going for Joey.”

Inside the room where the auditions are held, Jeri Frederickson, director of the work, waves in the first actor. He’s in a drab suit coat, buttoned at the waist, and outdated eyeglasses. Actors have been asked to prepare a monologue from any source, but many, of course, have memorised a scene from Friends.

“This is a monologue from David,” the man says, referring to the recurring scientist character who Hank Azaria played on the sitcom.

He reads a scene from the first season: David trying to explain the allure of Daryl Hannah. When the actor is finished, Byrne-Richards asks him to read as Ross, and this very mild man grows very excited: “Ross! I thought Ross was pre-cast!” After reading, he says he can be available with two weeks’ notice and thanks the room.

Next, a woman enters with the slightly mothering energy of Courteney Cox’s Monica, but acts with the rhythmic intensity of a slam poetry competitor. So they ask her to read as Lisa Kudrow’s flaky, off-kilter Phoebe. She reads, then leaves. The group takes notes.

I realised I wouldn’t know what happened to these characters now ... I had grown up with them
EILEEN BYRNE-RICHARDS, PLAYWRIGHT

Frederickson, a member of the Irish Theatre of Chicago, is more of a Monica. Derek Bertelsen, who has directed work for Chicago’s AstonRep Theatre Company and sat in to offer advice, is probably a Chandler. He sits beside Byrne- Richards, who mostly remains quiet. She’s more of a TV fan.

Byrne-Richards had never held an audition or been involved creatively in theatre before. But she’s encouraged: at least three dozen local actors have sent photographs. She describes herself as an at-home mum who likes to write, so a decade ago, when Friends was ending, “I realised I wouldn’t know what happened to these characters now, and I had been a twenty-something with them in the 1990s, so I had grown up with them.”

She doesn’t offer many details about her vision, only that the play takes place in 2014, a decade after the series ended, and “time stands still” for the characters: mentally, they’re still in the Clinton administration. She took her idea to theatre companies. No one bit. So, she rented Stage 773.

Next up is a cheerful young woman who comes in looking like a Rachel, but says she has been practising as a Janice, launching into an East Coast accent. The next actor is bald, presumably prepared to be a Gunther, the coffee shop barista who harbours an unrequited love for Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel. But he has a cartoon energy and reads as Matthew Perry’s Chandler. Byrne- Richards and company seem slightly impressed, handing him a page of Byrne-Richards’ dialogue and asking him to go again. Not bad.

Some actors are eager, and Bertelsen asks them to go again, “but boring”. After a series of larger women audition, he whispers to Byrne-Richards: “How important is very heavyset?” (Not very.) A country club type delivers a nice, uptight Monica. But then an even more severe Monica comes in, so Frederickson asks her to read as Rachel, handing her a page from the new play – Rachel has had a baby, regrets dating Ross for so long and got plastic surgery – and the woman

reads silently to herself. She furrows her brow, flips her hair and smiles, saying “OK”, and reads again.

“The right facial expressions, but weighty,” Frederickson says. “Boring,” Bertelsen says.

A man with the defeated, hangdog eyes of David Schwimmer’s Ross enters and does a scene in which Ross is upset because someone has tampered with his sandwich. “My sandwich!” he bellows. “My sandwich!” It’s not quite Brando bellowing in Streetcar, but it’s not bad, not at all. He is asked to read one more time, this time whiny and physical and “he, uh, he really opened up that time”, Byrne-Richards says.

The next guy is a dead ringer for Matthew Perry. Hair standing up, nervous fussiness, smartly tailored suit. The similarity is eerie, but no one notes this, studiously – the way some people try not to act excited when an actually famous person enters a room. The man nails Chandler. The group agrees that he looks great but mostly has improv experience.

Then a woman comes in with a guitar: “I learned something for Monica,” she says, “but brought my guitar to be Phoebe.” She’s not a bad Monica, but then she puts on a blond wig and sings a song she has written in the voice of Phoebe, a struggling musician: “There are clouds of gas called a nebula/ I hate those girls so much and their name is Ursula.”

When she leaves, Frederickson calls her “one of those whateverrole- you-want-her-for people”. Byrne-Richards: “Very creative.”

Bertelsen adds: “Plus, she brought her own wig.”

Tribune News Service