Look at these people, Aren’t they eerie?
Look at this party, Isn’t it dreary?
I’m so glad I came
— Sally, ‘Don’t Look at Me” from Follies (1971)
The Friends set is not crumbling. The Russian dressing colored couch in Central Perk is not in tatters, and the moths haven’t eaten at the corners of its upholstery. The foosball table in Joey and Chandler’s apartment isn’t in pieces. The garish purple paint in Monica’s apartment isn’t wilting and weeping off the walls. Everything is as it was, unmoored by time. Well, except its cast. One by one, they tacitly enter the soundstage, walking through time the supertext of the scene. And with pop up clones of the sets that have traveled across the country, the world, Friends doesn’t exist so much as the ghost of 1990s pop culture and its sweeping influence; it is its mummification.
In Sally’s eyes, as played by Imelda Staunton in the 2017 National Theatre revival of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies directed by Dominick Cooke, you can see madness, pain, a dream slipping through her fingers, curdling into nightmare. It’s Sally’s folly in the back part of the show, the ghosts of the past not so much stalking her, her pathetic and unfaithful husband Buddy, her former best friend Phyllis, and the object of her desire Ben, so much as creating a phantasmagoric vaudevillian performance space which forces them to confront their ills. This is “Loveland”, as the hoofers tell us, draped in idyllic, too perfect to be true baby blue lighting, silky curtains, and costumes that uncannily resurrect the past. It’s so much sadder than being deranged because reality is just at the edges.
It seems significant that Sally’s number, quiet and rumbling compared to the vivacious pastiches of everyone else’s, including their former selves, is called a “torch song”. Minimalist where the others’ performances are maximalist, she sits by a vanity, her nightgown, her skin, her hair milky and shimmering in a way it hasn’t since she was a showgirl. She’s starlight, but she’s dying. A flame that’s burned eternal, the blue at its base wavering in the wind but still alight. Imelda Staunton’s rendition of “Losing My Mind” simmers at first until she douses herself in kerosene, her continued, desperate and mad pining for Ben, even when he’s once again spurned her, the ultimate kind of self-immolation.
I tend to describe Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Tully, which seemed to be shrugged off when it was released in 2018, as “Follies, but about motherhood”, a reference that, though it may only register for some people, seems apt to me: certainly, it is about the challenges of motherhood (in particular, raising three children), and the skewed and inequitable manner in which the labor and work of motherhood is discussed, and a thoughtful character study of a woman, Margo (Charlize Theron), experiencing postpartum depression. I think it is also about the lives we lead, the ones which we wish explored and embodied, and the struggle to reconcile our past dreams and aspirations with present reality. Read the rest of this entry »