Review: "Friends with Amenities" is Pure Theatrical Pleasure

Friends with Amenities

Written and performed by Ahsan Ali and Lisa Jill Anderson

Directed by Sarah Norris

Presented by Pendragon Theatre and New Light Theater Project at 59E59 Theaters

59 E 59th St., Manhattan, NYC

September 14-30, 2023

Lisa Jill Anderson and Ahsan Ali in Friends with Amenities. Photo by Hayley Garcia Parnell
At least some of you reading this have bar friends - those people, usually, for obvious reasons, other regulars at a particular establishment, whom you may have been acquainted with and chatted with for years, but never beyond the confines of your mutually preferred pub. Ali (Ahsan Ali) and Natalie (Lisa Jill Anderson) are, at the start of superb two-hander Friends with Amenities, bar friends—and more specifically, a two-person pub trivia team currently on a hot streak. But when Ali accompanies Natalie back to her apartment after their most recent trivia victory, it will have profound ramifications for their relationship to one another in this beguilingly funny and thoughtfully probing play.
Lisa Jill Anderson and Ahsan Ali in Friends with Amenities. Photo by Hayley Garcia Parnell
Natalie works in finance, and her Brooklyn apartment, decorated in white on white, is far beyond the price range of actor Ali, in the US on a student visa. After they arrive at Natalie's to begin the show, the duo evince some conspicuous contrasts: Natalie keeps up with TMZ, while Ali is more of a BBC News kind of guy; acting is his passion and dream, even in the face of his family's opposition, while she later admits that she has never felt about anything the way that he does about his chosen craft. Like the way that their different names contain an overlapping syllable, these differences have largely worked complementarily, especially for trivia (and, when we meet them, as the source of some great jokes). It soon becomes clear that Natalie knows much more about reality TV than about Ali's native Pakistan–great for their pub trivia team but less so for some of the tensions that come to thicken the air between them as the night goes on. More importantly, though, and feeding into all of this, Ali has some significant news, and Natalie has been holding back something important in connection with why she invited Ali to her place and why she needs a new roommate.
Lisa Jill Anderson and Ahsan Ali in Friends with Amenities. Photo by Hayley Garcia Parnell
Friends with Amenities, written by the performers, consciously complicates the binaries suggested by its pairing of a privileged white American woman from the corporate sphere and an immigrant Muslim man who is not allowed to work under the terms of his visa from the artistic one. Ali, for instance, turns out to be wrong when he doesn't believe that someone like Natalie (whose origins are pertinently humbler and further away from NYC than one might at first expect) could have anything to be depressed and anxious about; and her confusion as to why he drinks when he is Muslim highlights how she–and people similar to her–would not wonder the same thing of, say, a self-professed Christian who made an equivalent decision. The characters' intersectional identities play a salient role in their experiences of guilt and hardship and their need to give and receive care and support, but that role is one of impact and inflection rather than exclusive definition. Ali, understatedly hilarious, and Anderson, fantastic as always, deliver affectingly nuanced performances as their characters spar with and confide in one another. In the course of this push and pull, sometimes tentative and sometimes tempestuous, the production makes it impossible not to become heavily invested in these two imperfect individuals and what will happen between them even as it emphatically eschews any triteness to the very end.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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