Thick Velour on Thin Veneer: Steven Moffat’s “The Unfriend” and the Fraying of Our Social Fabric

Souvenirs of my London theater experience, March 2023

The London theater season in early spring 2023 was as droughty as the weather was damp.  Rarely was so little being offered to so many, and with such few discounts.  Being in town to attend the opening of the London International Print Fair at Somerset House, I managed to catch up with what I thought was worth my while and then worked myself down to what I would generally consider bottom drawer best kept shut.  No, not Only Fools and Horses: The Musical.  After all, you can lead European fools like me to water, but you cannot make them splash out on bottled nostalgia for supposedly true Britishness.

After belatedly taking in The Lehman Trilogy – hoping in vain to find some reference to my alma mater, named in honor of one of the title characters, or to connect meaningfully in any other way to what is basically a semi-dramatized performance of a PowerPoint – I quickly ran out of theatrical options.

I did go see – and was intrigued – by the twenty-first century update of Oklahoma!, which almost works, pretty much right up to the heretofore feel-good finale that it very nearly nixes in bloodshed and yet awkwardly depends on, thus proving the old adage that you can’t have your ammo and spend it.  

I also appreciated the philosophical and weighty if already slightly past its sell-by dystopia Marjorie Prime at the Menier Chocolate Factory, even though I could never quite tell Anne Reid’s AI character from either Anne Reid, the actress, or from the character’s fleshly alter ego.  There being nothing else to see for someone on my budget – and I draw the line well before subjecting myself to the firing squad of a musical experience such as Bonnie and Clyde – the last resort was a matinee of The Unfriend.  And no discount.

Turns out, I enjoyed the least ambitious of those four shows the most, however low the bar.  Essentially a Britcom mounted in the West End, The Unfriend is as thin as the decorated shell of an Easter egg that someone – television-trained playwright Steven Moffat, assisted by his Dracula collaborator, director Mark Gatiss, a renowned darkside devotee – blew, as is customary, out of all substance and traces of nutrition while managing to keep it intact for our amusement.  I mean, Edward Albee it ain’t.  More like Are You Being Stiffed? or Mrs. Brown’s Bodies.

Reflecting on the impotence of being English, The Unfriend taps into the self-consciousness of the British regarding their apparently cultural or just plain apparent politeness – I mean, ask any European how that civility manifests on the continent – and their love-hate relationship with their overbearing American cousin, or whatever the family ties of post-Brexit Britain to the US.

In The Unfriend, the American cousin by any other name is the brash and manipulative Elsa Jean Krakowski.  Elka Ostrovsky, Betty White’s similarly clad character in Hot in Cleveland came to my readily distracted mind at the mention of that name; then again, The Unfriend is so derivative a farce that it affords any number of associations.

In the 30 March 2023 matinee of The Unfriend at the Criterion Theatre, which, the program informs me, opened about 150 years earlier with a production of An American Lady, Elsa, who is more of a dame, was played con molto brio by Olivier Award-nominated – and Remain-voting – English actress Frances Barber, even though the role would perhaps be more fully and faithfully inhabited by Kathleen Turner – a former Serial Mom, no less. 

A denizen of the Colorado capital made famous the world over by Dynasty, Elsa is a widow – possibly a black one – of what with some lexical flexibility and generosity of spirit might still go for midlife.  Her velour tracksuit – underneath which she admits to be “chins all the way down” – is as plush as the veneer of British politesse is demonstrated to be ripe for the abrasing.

Well, in this game of rock-paper-scissors, Elsa has the upper hand, especially since the other hands are either flailing or shaking.  From the start – we first encounter garrulous Elsa onboard a cruise ship, a premise based on a true story told to Moffatt, where she meets the certifiably middle aged, and all around middling British couple Debbie and Peter (also based on real people and deftly impersonated by Amanda Abbington and Reece Shearsmith) – I felt encouraged to warm, however reluctantly, to the anti-mystique of Elsa, a hot mess concocted of shrewdness and forth-far-rightness.  She is too obvious to be deceitful, too in-your-face to be masking her true self … or so we are led to believe.  Who is Elsa? What is she, that all the swains croak on her? 

Then again, Elsa is drawn that way: a flat character devoid of the very dimensions or nuances that are also lacking in today’s political discourse, references to which pop up to give the farcical proceedings a tinge of relevance.  “I’d do him,” Elsa declares in the opening scene when confronted with the likeness of a similarly garish former US president.  Her stated reason for voting for him, a second time around, is that “he’s funny.”  Apparently constructed under the influence of conspiracy theories, her ramshackle alternative to logic may be summed up by her claim that “[h]e only lost because of fraud and people voting against him.”

Elsa, as her British hosts discover before she even drops in, as threatened on the high seas, is a celebrity of sorts, and of one of the worst sorts at that, the ex-President excepting: she is suspected to be a serial killer.  Only Fools and Corpses, anyone? 

The English characters, confronted with the possibility of their demise, are hamstringed in their attempt to get shot of her – legally, that is – by their sense of obligation toward their unwelcome guest.  “You English, you’re so polite,” Elsa gushes.  It is a courtesy Debbie and Peter do not extend to their neighbor (Michael Simkins) who, despite having lived next door for ten years, is not known to them – or any of us – by name.  Peter is too easily distracted by calls and text messages to pay attention to a man whose presence is less keenly felt as that of priggish Mrs. Grundy, to mention a long-established convention of British comedy.

The Unfriend, to be sure, does not belabor or foreground its dramatic heritage.  It goes all out for nowness.  And yet, as refreshing as it is to see a comedy that responds to and mirrors our present, the play is already beginning to feel dated in its efforts to keep up the appearance of keeping up.  It is as contemporary as last year’s smartphone technology, especially in its references to the pandemic that delayed its arrival.  Not surprisingly, Elsa has her own take on Covid-19.  Peculiarly but all the same representative of an all too familiar type, she reminds her hosts that the people she was supposed to have poisoned “were all vaccinated.”

Speaking of silent killers, real or imaginary, The Unfriend is ripe with all the crudeness of British toilet humor – a recurring threat in act one is the breaking of wind and a stool sample takes center stage in number two.  A farce invested in farts and feces, The Unfriend is not about British politeness, in a bad manner of speaking, or about the relationship between cultures who don’t see eye to eye on the distinction (“Tomayto-tomahto”?) between toilet and bathroom as much as it about human interaction – friendship, family and neighborliness – in the age of social media.  

Elsa tracks down her unwitting – and very nearly witless – victims-in-waiting via Facebook, and what Debbie and Peter learn about her, via the legacy media of tabloid television, they find posted on YouTube.  Meanwhile, Elsa connects with the couple’s son, Alex (Gabriel Howell), by playing violent computer games off which she also manages to ween him.

“Isn’t technology wonderful!” Elsa chirps.  Not that she remains convinced that such dubious advancements – or her new British acquaintances, for that matter – are quite so “wonderful” when she is confronted with her past.  “Why did you google me?” she protests.  “Why would anyone google a person like that? It’s so rude!”  According to Elsa, online research for the sake of self-preservation is more insensitive than bumping off your other half.

“Facebook got it right,” Peter moans.  What “the real world needs” is an “unfriend button.”  If The Unfriend were a college composition, that might be its thesis, as signposted by the title.  Luckily, it ain’t.  As a comedy, it invites us, especially those among us who remember a world before virtuality, collectively to roll our eyes and laugh out loud at the precarious state of what we once understood to mean “social.”

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