Side by Side by Side: The Last Fun Thing
When I talk about Company, which I am wont to do, I have a spiel, a semi-lucid reverie that, at this point, I know by heart. I make sure to mention its highly industrialized, mechanized New York world; its pleasantly conceptual presentation, making Bobby more of an idea of a person than a person; its abstraction of marriage and monogamy and relationships, giving it an outsider looking in feeling; that its queerness comes down to that abstraction of heteronormativity. But the one part of my reading of Company which is most important to me, which perhaps resonates most deeply with me and seduced me in the first place, is its understanding and interrogation of the space that exists between people: physically, temporally, emotionally.
In Company, everyone is always together, and Bobby seldom gets a moment alone. At his birthday party, in the various apartments of his friends, on his dates with his girlfriends. And yet, even compared to the parts of the musical where he is on stage with no one else around him, he seems alone all the same, isolated with everyone else so close, yet so far away. He reactive and reactionary, but one can’t help but wonder if it’s barely a thread that’s keeping him from receding beyond sight. He’s thankful for his friends including him in their thoughts, their lives, their memories, he’s thankful for them for remembering. But what’s it like trying to remember a ghost? What’s it like trying to remember yourself if you’re the restless spirit?
It’s been a long time since I, or anyone, has been able to gather in a room full of people for one’s birthday party, and Zoom makes the groundlessness of so much of this time rather pronounced. It’s been a while since many people could even gather comfortably with your married, about to be married, or about to be not-married friends, or to cycle through lovers like an old 33, at least not without some trepidation, or the conversation drifting to what it was like before, back then, so long ago. The conversation is like grasping at mist, memories atomized more and more with each passing day spent lying supine on one’s bed or couch letting whatever show wash over you.
With my friend Juan, I saw what was to be the return of Sondheim’s Company, in its new genderbent version directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Katrina Lenk, on March 2, 2020. Seeing Company with Juan was the last fun thing I did before pandemic. It had become a tradition for Juan to depart from marshlands of their Florida home and for us to venture into the wilds of Midtown Manhattan to see a show or two for my birthday, usually part of a longer weekend. Seeing Company was, in several ways, a culmination of our friendship: defined not only by our tendency to be lovingly antagonistic towards one another, our relationship is shaped by distance itself and the degree to which intimacy can be achieved with another person when they are not in your direct presence. The question of space — physical, temporal, emotional — is the very palate on which the relationship Juan and I is drawn; rather, it becomes less a question, an ending punctuation mark, and more of an exclamation point, but the inversion of it.
The inverted punctuation marks like exclamation points and question marks are used in Spanish to denote to the read the tone of the sentence at the very beginning, addressing any kind of guesswork that might have needed to be made in, say, English. Paradoxically, at least in this scenario, with the awareness of that spatial discrepancy between the two of us, it allows us to not only sustain intimacy but a compelling kind of honesty. Are we just children of the internet, our personal filters alternately stripped from us and then wrestled back? Juan and I met on Tumblr a decade or so ago, and perhaps because the platform at the time was untamed and encouraged a lack of apology for one’s emotional impulses that I grew to become fond of Juan’s deep sense of unhingedness. There was little that Juan would not post, few feelings they wouldn’t process in “#personal” text posts, and hardly any personal interest that wouldn’t develop into a deeply thoughtful obsession: the 2011 Broadway revival of Anything Goes, Neon Evangeline Lily something or other, classic erotica like Score, etc.
Their unbridled, unrestrained, and undomesticated insight and thoughtfulness into the things that they love often comes out in their writing. And I admit I’m a little envious of that. And I wish I were nicer to them more often than I am; but it’s a credit to Juan that they know me so well they know exactly how to get under my skin, a true testament to feeling understood. I always tell Juan it would be so much easier to hate them if they were a bad writer; but whatever noxious bad habits and unwillingness to control themselves in public or give me context in any conversation effectively evaporates (or perhaps informs) when they dive deep into the intricacies of trans readings of cinema.
We have winkingly terse, tempestuous dynamic, like old marrieds. Think George and Martha without the alcohol. Juan, too, has loved Company as long as I’ve known them. So the evening of the show, its first public preview, involved bickering, like cosplaying the very fate that Bobby, and Bobbie, would have dreaded so viscerally. We fell down trying to take pictures together at the cute, rickety digital photobooth by the bathroom. We bought the overpriced show merch, hocked to us by a theatre employee. We judged viciously other queers in the seats near us, as we were second row from the stage. “We get it, you’re gay,” we quipped to each other, at those who had deigned to get front row seats.
The director came out, made her speech, and the show began. And it was… okay. It wasn’t great, granted, it was the first public preview. But there are fond memories to be had of mediocre shows now. Katrina Lenk did the thing you’re not supposed to do with Bobbie and cut through the thread holding the characters in front of us just enough to not disappear before our eyes. The couples took control of most of the scenes, as if Bobbie really were just the memory of someone they once knew. I was glad to see it, I was glad to see it with one of my best friends, and the production itself is good, for the record (I saw it in London). It was admittedly a disappointing experience, but even disappointment vibrates with feeling more than most things in the last year.
As many a self-serious, solipsistic essay will profess, there’s little else like being in a crowd of people ready for a show. But it feels significant that the show you’re seeing and the person you’re seeing it with coalesce in curious ways. The time of fixating on Sondheim’s telemusical Evening Primrose as quarantine ur-text has passed; now it feels like Company is useful to contemplate those feelings. (And not just because I’m obsessed with the show.) In another world before the one we’ve landed ourselves in, doesn’t the persistent struggle to make sense of our relationships, our environments, and our identities in relation to others feel like being in a room of people who know, or think they know who you are, when you yourself still are cobbling together an insufficient vocabulary to articulate as much? How atomized are memories of ourselves as idealized social creatures (or the opposite) and how we conceived of who we are just as ourselves, never mind how we became who we think we are when in the presence of others? How thin or thick is that thread keeping us from receding into nothingness in a room full of people singing the question, “What would we do without you?”
It’s very strange but I think part of my gravitation towards friendships that have their origins on the internet is that, when it’s right, the other person is spending as much time thinking about those questions as you are, independently. It always begins like spirits drifting unanchored, searching for beauty. But that becomes, in some ways, a collaborative project, a challenge, a commitment to growth, even when you’re not in the same immediate space together. They find their tactility at some point in the real world if you’re lucky like I am, but you can parse through those memories and questions and particles of yourself and the other, far away, so close, side by side by side.