Odd Man Out

Ensemble Theatre, January 24

Reviewed by John Shand


OMO res
Justin Stewart Cotta as Ryan. Photo: Clare Hawley.

David Williamson has said that he is now more psychologist than playwright. If such didactic preoccupations have sometimes clouded the dramaturgy of his recent work, in Odd Man Out Williamson the psychologist and Williamson the playwright have come up with an impressive double act. While the social psychologist in him shines a light upon Asperger syndrome and how it affects not only the person with AS, but those around him or her, Williamson the playwright has crafted his most compelling protagonist in years: AS-affected Ryan, grippingly portrayed by Justin Stewart Cotta.

This is a finely nuanced realisation of what it means to be hyper-intelligent and emotionally stunted for both Ryan and the woman he marries, Alice (Lisa Gormley). Rather than interacting conventionally with the other characters Cotta often stares into the audience with a confronting expression that simultaneously speaks of emotional vacancy or bewilderment and a brain seething with ideas.

Having married him before she knew that he was more than merely eccentric, Alice tries to coach Ryan into some vague normality of social behaviour with herself, her friends and her parents. It’s a big ask.

The only creature I’ve met who was as infinitely benign, kind, loving and patient as Alice was a dog. She is barely saved from being insufferably sweet by a typically Williamsonian thread of humour, by a veiled selfishness being implicit in her desire to remake Ryan, and by Gormley rising to the challenge when larger emotions are in play.

Gael Ballantyne, Rachel Gordon, Matt Minto and Bill Young valiantly add flesh to minor characters who seem little more than sketches conveniently functioning within the plot. The upshot is that the work sags whenever Ryan is absent, but thankfully he is there for nearly all of it, and Anna Gardiner’s simple set and Mark Kilmurry’s direction converge with Cotta’s performance in keeping our focus on his startling mind and slowly unfurling heart. Yes, the story becomes too predictable, but Williamson and Cotta ensure we remain fascinated by Ryan until the end.

Until March 18.