Why did I cross the road the other night? Because Zebra is playing at Wharf One. Yeah I should be a stand-up comic.
Anyway I am glad I did. Mueller is an Australian writer who’s work I’ve not seen before, despite is gathering reputation for a string of works including Concussion, Glory, The Ghost Writer and Construction of the Human Heart. Of all the current crop of up-and-coming, emerging and/or struggling Australian writers, Ross Mueller is the lucky one to score a mainstage gig at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2011. The play selection by our theatre companies – large and small, funded and unfunded – has always, and should excite discussion. All the more so when the company is big and funded, like the STC. Audiences feel they have a right to ask: why was my tax money (on top of the ticket price) spent on that? It’s a tough for artistic directors because you can almost never please all of the people all of the time. Which I guess is today’s theme.
I skipped over a full review of In The Next Room by Sarah Ruhl, currently enjoying an extended season at the SOH Drama theatre due to public demand (lots of happy people) , though I made some negative references to it in my recent posts on David Williamson – re: dramaturgy. My focus was on playwriting craft and whether the play lived up to its own inbuilt claims and aims. It was a play that had distressed a surprising number of my more discerning colleagues – male and female, older and younger – who judged it as unworthy of receiving attention at all. Their main question being: why should an unimportant work from an overseas writer get such a lavish production at our expense? Surely, there are plays of greater cultural significance, possibly even Australian made that deserved more attention.
Personally I enjoyed In the Next Room, not least among the reasons the chance to see Pamela Rabe direct again (she did a beautiful job – a very caring hand); and watch some delightful acting – in particular for me, from Helen Thomson, whose superior intelligence and wit allows her to bring to life such a scatterbrain as Mrs Daltry. Marilyn Monroe was also great at this: being very smart at playing dumb.
I will let others prosecute their particular case against In The Next Room. If the STC is to keep different interest groups happy then this crypto-feminist blancmange was going to do that: and it has, as ticket sales prove. But now to the current case – closer to home. Of all the new Australian plays being posted to, or even commissioned of late, by theatre companies: when the STC does get round to producing one – is Zebra the most deserving? How would I know – compared to what? I’m not going to sit down and read a hundred other scripts. And that would be just my opinion. But such questions do arise when the ‘good faith’ of a company is under pressure. And I guess some people have a problem with the STC’s overt interest over the past two years in American plays (and actors and directors). In The Next Room being just the latest in a string of them.
Does Zebra reveal a writer of promise – to be encouraged? Yes. That said, while it is better than many new Australian plays one encounters on the Indy scene (where most new Australian plays premiere), it does not sit with the best of the best of the past few years. That was Bang! – which I constantly bang on about. Take a wider time frame: is Zebra as good as say Coralie Lansdowne Says No, by Alex Buzo, which premiered at the old Nimrod in 1974? It too was a ‘feminist comedy’ written by a young bloke with a gift for fresh dialogue. I think, yes, Zebra is as good as Coralie and that’s taking into account that our expectations are higher these days. Was I engaged watching Zebra? Yes.
Two men walk into a bar – separately. There’s a barmaid in there. An hour and forty minutes later, one guy leaves and the other gets on his knees and asks the woman to share his life with him. What else?A lot of talk about money: the play is set in a new York bar in the immediate wake of the GFC – a form of money rubber chicken that a lot of outlets ran out of a few years back making a lot of regular customers, including Jimmy (Bryan Brown), pretty upset. The other guy, Larry (Colin Friels) has somehow hung onto his rubber chicken, a whole lot of it, and is pretty happy about that. The women, Robinson (Nadine Garner), has been over-fried and looking to shut down shop. Larry, while doing a heck of a lot of chat, including talking himself up, ends up helping them both out. And himself in the process. So its a comedy, if you feel the need to tick a box.
Mueller’s nifty dialogue covers a lot of territory, and while enjoyable as it rushes past, you do wonder if the writer is ever going to get this ship into port. There is more symmetry to the play than first appears: both men are waiting to meet a guy in this bar. It takes them, and us, quite a while to realise they are waiting for each other. That’s because the rich guy is waiting to meet the young dude who wants to marry his daughter. He (Larry) does not imagine this clapped-out Australian (Jimmy), closer to 60, however good-looking for his age, could possibly that guy. The revelation comes as quite a shock. But at the same time, Larry is getting more and more interested in the women behind the bar and, at some point, lays a bet with Jimmy that he can score (or whatever the correct turn of phrase is these days). While the play looks to be all about money, it turns out to be also about love. And symmetry in two old guys, each of whom is making a bit for a lass, more than half their age: two different lasses, only one of whom we get to meet. One bloke is cashed up, the other skint. Does money play a role in the human calculations? You need to go the play see to find out. ‘Yes and possibly no’ in one instance (Larry); and ‘no and possibly yes’ in the other (Jimmy).
Opening night foyers can be great fun after a show because a lot of people in the crowd are regulars and they like to throw their opinions around. Thanks goodness – lively chat! It’s fascinating to encounter the similarities and differences in evaluations. Most people thoroughly enjoyed In the Next Room, the Drama Theatre lobby was fairly buzzing that night. But the few who did not care for it were in a very dark mood. And among the were some of our smarter younger women. They disliked with an intensity that’s rare, seeing it represent some kind of betrayal of the causes they live for.
Unanimous approval is rare, though it did happen at the opening night of the Budapest Ivanov that toured to the Sydney Festival a few years back. You could understand why its director, Tamas Ascher, was invited back to direct to Sydney to direct Uncle Vanya this year for the STC. Yet that production got a mixed response. I didn’t see it on opening night, but opinions from across the season varied wildly. While everyone was blown away by John Bell and Hugo Weaving in particular, there were divided views on Richard Roxburgh in the title role, and generally there was less enthusiasm for several of the female performances. Yet, my understanding is the the STC artistic leadership were very happy with the show and it’s off to Washington DC! So who’s right and who’s wrong? For me it was a mixed bag with some wonderful highlights. But with Chekhov, of all writers, you are of course reaching for as bast you can a highly unified field.
The reaction to the opening night of Zebra was mixed. I think most people I spoke to were happy they crossed the road, but there were reservations – and some quite contradictory. Some thought the maths of the money divided by romance equation added up – I did. Others saw some clunky number crunching.
Some had problems with Bryan Brown. If you’re going to cast an Aussie guy close to 60 who is going to appeal to a smart 20-something young woman, how could you go past casting Bryan Brown? That’s who Bryan Brown is – the last sexy man of his generation left standing. Only trouble was, Brown wasn’t too sexy on opening night. I was happy to give him a few days grace because it’s that kind of x-factor – charisma – that is going to evaporate in the face of nerves, if anything, on an opening night.
It was the reaction to Colin Friels that was odd. I was pretty sure in Friels, as the rich guy Larry, we had just witnessed one of the great performances of the season. Bold, malleable, inventive, committed – and yes in the end – sexy! Even though that was a view of many, there were others who saw no magic on Friels work. Such is the mystery of the theatre experience. Personally, no -one is going to move me: I thought Friels was a knockout and I’d go back to see him do it again tomorrow. Meanwhile, Nadine Garner did a fine job in the female role, with not a lot of background to her character to work with. It’s not a showy performance. But it’s important that we respect this character as both good and knowing, otherwise the ending would end up being merely slight.
Among the major pleasures of this night in the theatre was the experience of seeing an animal called Zebra, itself, get across the road. When you’re worrying that it has been ambling along the pavement, nose up, nose down. In the last fifteen minutes of the play, it picks up its legs and – quite remarkably – gets itself to the other side. This play is more than talk – something interesting happens. And, all credit to author that you don’t see it coming. You might see the question looming – will I or won’t I. But, for once, you can’t anticipate the answer. I thought: ‘Oh Ross Mueller, what a surprise – you’ve been in control all along.’ I was shocked that he pulled it off, I didn’t see it coming.
But, to jump metaphors midstream: the writer has to thank Friels for landing his bat on a curved ball – and hitting it high over the boundary fence. I changed from Zebra to ball, because you wouldn’t want to hit a Zebra hard. Though in the landscape of the play, it turns out Larry and Jimmy are male Zebras, and apparently (like most males in most species) when it comes to the care and affection of the females of the species, they are inclined to get into fights.
I have to make mention costume design because when is the last time Julie Lynch was asked to dress her characters ‘daggily’? She is the queen of high style – typecast for that. So that was nice a change. And then there was a personal delight in discovering a friend from way back, David McKay, who works mainly in film, designing the set. His theatre debut I think. McKay’s brief is to recreate a realistic New York Irish bar – and that he achieves, in magnificent detail. But McKay does something else: he reconfigures the Wharf One space in a way we have never seen before. This new look is achieved in collaboration with lighting designer Damien Cooper, and the result is fantastic. If you get to see this show, note how the characters enter in from the street. And the lighting, especially in the opening which goes with that.