By James Fritz

Directed by Thomas Martin

In James Fritz’s pained, somewhat unfocused exploration of marital malaise, the words “until death do you part” take on an ironic meaning. By the time pedagogue Ross is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, he and his wife Rachel have already emotionally parted. If anything, it’s his illness and imminent death that bind them. She can’t leave him now. Whatever their expectations may have been, Ross and Rachel soon realize that, unlike their namesakes on the sitcom Friends, they’re not destined for life of unremitting domestic bliss. Nor is it easy to put a brave or romantic face on the ravages of illness and the impermanence of happiness.

As the reality of the situation sinks in, both characters indulge in rumination and fantasy. Rachel imagines she’ll thrive in her career and relationship life after Ross is gone. Ross contemplates suicide, imagining that he and the perfectly-healthy Rachel will do it together (not an easy sell). Mostly though, it’s the day-to-day coping rituals that dominate the characters’ lives. In one of the more affecting scenes, Rachel repeats the offering “Coffee? Coffee? Coffee?” scores of times in the same wearily upbeat tone as a stampede of well- intentioned visitors express sympathy, but are powerless to help. In another well-crafted monologue, Ross boasts to a bartender of his beautiful wife and his illustrious academic career. Beneath his arrogance is a primal need to believe that his life has meant something, that he will leave a void when he goes.

Fritz’s writing is at its best when deep feelings shine through the character’s self-absorption. Far too often, though, the dramatic stakes are lowered by the fact that no one seems to really care. Ross regards Rachel as a possession: a gorgeous trophy won through scholarly achievement. Rachel sees her “boring” husband as a millstone around her neck. With all that objectification, there isn’t much left to fight for. Fritz also gives us only murky insights into the emotional investments the two have respectively made outside the marriage. Rachel claims to love her job. Yet, outside of a flirtation with a co-worker, few specifics are provided regarding her work life or long-range ambitions. She briefly mentions a daughter, but doesn’t clarify whether the child is real or just part of one of her reveries (let’s hope it’s the latter, seeing as neither Ross nor Rachel seems remotely interested in helping the child through the coming loss of a parent). For the audience to stay riveted, the characters would need to have something more to lose than just their TV-fed illusions of marital utopia.

The play does, however, provide a showcase for the dynamic Molly Vevers, who plays both halves of the couple with remarkable dexterity. Her disarmingly youthful face belies a brooding intellect and startling emotional range. Over the course of an hour, director Thomas Martin confidently guides Vevers from callow optimism to middle aged ennui. Alison Neighbour’s spare scenic design and Douglas Green’s moody lighting bolster Rachel’s arc by suggesting an ever-encroaching psychological abyss.

ROSS & RACHEL continues through June 5, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York.