Young Americans are fascinated by other young Americans struggling and making it in New York City. At times, it feels like every sitcom on television is some variation of this plot. Millennials, more than any generation, are obsessed with the grit and grime behind that fantasy. Girls can afford to rent a living room and a half because of their upper middle class privilege, whereas Friends pleasantly enjoy entire coffee shops and spacious two bedroom apartments. Aziz Ansari sacrifices his acting career to host a reality show, whereas Jerry Seinfeld’s life is so quietly successful I’m not entirely sure he’s ever so much as frowned onscreen. Yadda yadda yadda.
The Theatre Factory’s The Goodbye Girl, therefore, appeals to just about everybody. Based on the 70’s film of the same name written by Neil Simon, the musical follows Paula McFadden (Chelsea Bartel), a struggling single mother who is bounced from relationship to relationship by actors eager for a quick thrill. Her career as a dancer on television – the kind of dancer that peps up TV advertisements for dietary supplements – yields similar results.
The musical opens with Paula once more on the outs. Her latest ex left unceremoniously in the night and rented out their apartment to fellow actor Elliot Garfield (Nick Mitchell), who is more or less a total jerk. But Paula isn’t alone: Lucy (Amelia Bender), Paula’s wise-beyond-her-years preteen daughter, is a more adult figure than any of Paula’s prior flings.
The struggle is real, in other words, and the first act is almost merciless in how few wins it allows Paula. The Theatre Factory’s latest is in some ways a reminder of how much popular perception of struggling in the big city has changed. Being a production of a Neil Simon script it is relentlessly positive, but thanks to the energetic sarcasm of its performers it also feels in line with more contemporary comedy-dramas.
However, some subplots that worked as funny goofs in the 1970s play different in the 2010s. Elliot – who we are unsurprised to see develop into Paula’s latest love interest – shows up late in the night to the McFadden’s apartment, makes it clear he can legally evict his newfound roommates at any point, and quickly makes good on his promise that he likes walking around his apartment in the nude. With a young girl around.
I can’t entirely blame the source material on my discomfort with the character here. Nick Mitchell doesn’t soften Elliot’s edge so much as sharpens it, and in another play could be framed as a scary dude. Chelsea Bartel’s Paula, meanwhile, is in a perpetual state of emotional exhaustion, but always feels like she’s ready to give the audience a laugh. She’s a very grin-and-bare-it type, but her pain is visible all the same. There is a moment in the second act in which Elliot’s entire career is put at risk during a disastrous performance as a multi-gendered Richard III. We’re meant to be enjoying his misfortune, but even in such a humbling moment The Goodbye Girl seems to be insisting we reframe Elliot as a beleaguered eccentric worth cheering for. I wasn’t sold, and therefore never fully bought into the romance between the two.
More believable is Paula’s relationship with Lucy. Amelia Bender performs Lucy with a fun mix of earnest spirit and a touch of early onset irony, making her a perfect fit. Bartel plays Paula like a woman who caught on fire a minute ago and is the last one to realize it. She bleeds imperfection, but we never question her determination to make a good life for Lucy, and as a result have an easy time laughing along.
I can’t help but feel The Goodbye Girl is tonally inconsistent. I’ve seen Mitchell before, as an aggrieved survivor in a production of The Birds, and found his ability to be a caring partner one minute and an angry mess the next unsettling in how believable it was. I believe him here, too. I’ve seen Bartel’s work at The Theatre Factory before during a production of Next To Normal, where she played a mother suffering from schizophrenia. I saw it with a friend whose parent was afflicted by a similar condition, and the performance shook her. What I’m saying is, these are good performers, but the tone of the show changes depending who is taking center stage. If it’s Mitchell, it’s the New York City from Girls; if it’s Bartel, it’s the New York City from Friends.
The dissonance is only exacerbated by The Goodbye Girl’s musicality, which was uneven during the show’s premier. Mitchell nailed the Richard III fiasco, which is the play’s greatest scene. He really leans into Elliot’s narcissism and his constant, desperate asides to stage hands and ridiculous physicality really sells the moment. Placed next to Bartel’s doe-eyed optimism and bright, dynamic vocals, however, Elliot needs to shift hard towards warmth, or perhaps Paula needs to learn harder into the playful sarcasm from earlier scenes.
The Theatre Factory’s The Goodbye Girl can be uplifting, and I found myself wanting to escape into Scott Calhoon’s colorful, Hollywood soundstage-esque set design. True to life, however, the world it’s built around is too erratic to be fantasy.
The Goodbye Girl runs at The Theatre Factory in Trafford through September 24. For tickets and more information, click here.