Tensions (are forced to) run high in Sunday, the new play from Jack Thorne. Its title points to the “Sunday scaries” phenomenon: that pang of anxiety that creeps up on you as you realize yet another week of existence awaits. If you’re lucky enough never to have experienced it, you can experience a similar kind of restlessness throughout the 90 minutes spent watching a group of twenty-somethings argue across each other, never truly engaging with what the other is saying, thus never sticking around a subject long enough to for a point to land.
A cluttered-chic apartment becomes the battleground for a book club comprising five young Millennials, whose relationships to one another don’t seem to hold up—they bicker and clash in ways no one would choose to stick around for. For this meeting, they’re hosted by Marie (Sadie Scott) and Jill (Juliana Canfield), who work in publishing and have a slightly romantic tinge to their friendship. Joining them are Milo (Zane Pais), Jill’s d-bag boyfriend; his best friend, Keith, (Christian Strange); and Alice (Ruby Frankel), the token Woke Girl who doubles as a sometimes-narrator.
We’re introduced to Marie through Alice’s opening narration: “She likes books, chicken, alcohol, her roommate, and the possibilities if not the reality of New York.” A description like that promises a lot—it’s an ambitious setup, though disappointing given that the narrative almost entirely leaves Marie once the club assembles.
Though they barely mention the Anne Tyler novel they’ve gathered to discuss—much to the chagrin of Alice, whose bothersome desire to stick to the book, even when the last member has barely arrived, goes unexplained—they don’t exactly talk about anything else, substantial or otherwise.
As the conversation glides from supposedly salient topic to salient topic, it begins to feel like Thorne is checking off Tennessee Williams talking points: the requisite barely grazed childhood traumas, old-school battles of the sexes, the nonstop adoration of booze that leads a book club to inexplicably do lines into the wee hours of the night—it’s all there.
An exciting difference might be that the truth-teller character, usually the drunkest of the group, is embodied here by the most sober character: Alice. But if this was meant to be a commentary on the current twenty-something generation’s relationship to drugs and alcohol, it leaves a lot of room for exploration.
As far as argument cohesion goes, if a topic seems to be gaining traction—say, an exploration of the term “toxic masculinity”—it is quickly banished by the hyper-choreographed scene transitions, courtesy of director/choreographer Lee Sunday Evans. Her work here brings to mind a Billie Eilish video–turned–intrusive thought, constantly drawing attention away from any thematic material in favor of unwarranted kinetics.
Thorne, fresh off the success of his blockbuster Tony-winner, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has set his sights on the Night of Drunken Arguments genre, and it’s clear to see what he is attempting. This is the play that will, once and for all, explain the mystery of today’s youth. Solve the Millennial question, if you will. If we are to take him at his word, though, today’s youth are little more than self-rewarding caricatures. They jump from intelligent discourse into belligerent attacks without warning, and without much cohesion. This is the type of play that includes a painfully self-aware line like, “The book group started as a post-ironic joke and continued as a post-ironic joke that we were post-ironic about being post-ironic.” Get it?
That line is delivered early on by Alice, whose unexplained role as narrator never quite coalesces into anything meaningful. Add to this the fact that Marie, played achingly well by Scott, is the ostensible lead and you’re left with two layers of would-be meta-commentary on the action onstage, which might’ve been better off left alone.
The performances are all-around terrific. Though they are often let down by their restrictively one-dimensional roles, the cast does admirable work with characters who are, at best, cartoonish, at worst, insufferable. There’s also Bill (Maurice Jones), the 37-year-old neighbor who appears long after the club has disbanded to chat with a restless Marie. That Jones’s performance brings the most pathos to the play is obscured by the fact that, after a truly exhausting book club meeting, we are also on the verge of calling it a night.