Wharf 1 Theatre, February 10


Back in the day, one could make frothy coffee without an espresso machine. It was basically a hot milkshake of nebulous coffee flavour. Van Badham’s new play is the theatrical equivalent: a comedy so frothy that one wades through hectares of lather to happen upon occasional kernels of humour.

Johnny Nasser. Photos: Daniel Boud.

A Fool in Love is her more charitably titled adaptation of Lope de Vega’s 1613 play, La Dama Boba (The Stupid Woman). Generally, the closer Badham adheres to de Vega, the funnier the show, although he, too, was up to his slashed breeches in some Spanish variant of froth. Prosecco, perhaps.

Badham’s version is set in the Australian beachside paradise of Illescas, which is suspiciously like the Gold Coast. There lurks the appalling Otto (Johnny Nasser), a failed business tycoon, and his two marriageable daughters, Vanessa (Melissa Kahraman) and Phynayah (Contessa Treffone). By a quirk of dramaturgical fate, Otto’s brother has left a fortune to the family on condition that Phynayah is married before she turns 30.

Spelling her name is not the only hurdle to this eventuating: she is, according to her father, the “intellectual equivalent of a failed pie”. For once, he’s not being unkind. When her many suitors, attracted by both her dowry and her beauty, discover the pie side, they suddenly tend to remember they left the bath or the Nordic track running. Vanessa, who’s as sharp as a barbed-wire fence, disdains her own suitors because they can’t discuss the three “p’s” – politics, poetry and philosophy – with the requisite fervour of Marxist-feminist erudition. Of course her barbed-wire nature and the lack of a dowry are vague deterrents, too.

Into this web fly Lee (Aaron Tsindos), an upwardly mobile Sydney builder lured by Phynayah’s loot, and Laurie, an impoverished philosophy major who, in his own downward hierarchical scheme, doesn’t just work at Liquorland, he works at a Liquorland in a mall. He and Vanessa share a love of all those “p’s”, but then he learns about Phynayah’s potential to hoist him out of a future in which Aristotle and Spinoza are supplanted by infinite cases of seltzer.

Contessa Treffone and Megan Wilding. Photos: Daniel Boud.

The obligatory subplot, meanwhile, tells of Phynayah’s friend Clare (Megan Wilding), and her hectic romance with Pedro (Alfie Gledhill), which seems to involve wheelie bins in some fetishistic way. Each to their own. Badham gives us the sort of broad, coarse humour in which “f” bombs, “c” bombs and other primitive linguistic explosives are deemed inherently riotous. This is a false assumption. What is amusing is Treffone’s performance as Phynayah, from whose apparent imbecility Lee runs into the barbed arms of Vanessa, even as Laurie thinks the bread of his philosophy of life could be better buttered by the blank-slate sister with the dosh.

Phynayah’s dormant intellect, it seems, is stimulated by Laurie’s affections, and Treffone takes us on an entertaining romp through the froth as she alternates between being bewildered by buttons and being able to write a structurally sound sonnet.

But one genuinely funny character is not quite enough, is it? Okay, Wilding, as ever, also earns her laughs, and the others all have their moments. But when Isabel Hudson’s costumes are such an active ingredient in the humour, you know you have a script that is either not funny enough or is too long. I’d suggest both. Perhaps, too, director Kenneth Moraleda (for STC) overcooks the dish in his first mainstage production, presumably thinking the solution was more froth rather than less.

Until March 17.