Belvoir Downstairs Theatre, May 6
Silent action can be worth a thousand words. The most complete piece of theatre in this new play comes when Claire, a lesbian intent on marrying a stray man, removes her street clothes and, with the aid of Carol, her aunt, dons a stunning ivory bridal gown. Both women are moved in different ways and for different reasons, but their emotions converge in a simple infatuation with the beauty of the dress. Not a word is exchanged.
There’s a lesson there, because playwright James Elazzi is prone to putting lines into his characters’ mouths that could have been left unsaid, whether to maximise the truth of the dialogue, or to intensify the story-telling by making the audience work a little harder.
This tendency to overwrite is exacerbated by the actors being much too loud when their characters are angry – which is often – in Belvoir’s tiny Downstairs Theatre. Acting, after all, is much like playing a musical instrument, and the performances must be geared to the size and acoustics of the venue. Director Anna Jahjah (for Brave New Word Theatre Company) staged the wedding-dress scene perfectly, but she should have coaxed her actors into finding comparable (or greater) intensity without resort to such ferocious volume. It’s like the difference between making music in a stadium and a bar.
Son of Byblos continues Elazzi’s exploration of the jagged interface between Lebanese and Australian culture that he began with Lady Tabouli and continued with Queen Fatima. As with the former, this story centres on the difficulties of coming out as gay in a conservative Australian-Lebanese household. But, unlike the earlier plays, Elazzi is less concerned with making us laugh than with making us feel. He’s devised a storyline and characters to draw us in, and Jahjah has assembled a cast capable of completing the job. What’s missing is a consistent understanding that greater restraint might actually make the audience feel more.
Mansoor Noor plays Adam, the soured apple of his father’s eye and the darling of his mother’s heart – except they don’t know his main hobby is having casual sex in public toilets. Nor do they understand why he wants to design websites rather than install wardrobes or work in an office. Adam’s father (Simon Elrahi) has a simple philosophy that a man must be able to survive in life; be self-sufficient. He helps his son obtain “better” jobs than stacking fruit, and can’t begin to understand why these efforts aren’t appreciated. Elrahi is especially convincing as the character riding the steepest learning curve.
Adam’s mother (Deborah Galanos) still dares to dream beyond the drudgery of feeding her men; dares to define a corner of her life that is her own by taking tango lessons. Claire (Kate Bookallil), meanwhile, has always been Adam’s confidant, until she shot off to Lebanon and came home engaged to a seemingly random man, abruptly ending a loving lesbian relationship. And Angela (Violette Ayad), a dentistry student whose only flightpath from her family home is via marriage, is a rekindled flame in Adam’s flirtation with bisexuality.
Most of the play is presented as a series of duets, with the scenes between Adam and each parent often especially effective. The centrepiece, however, comes when all five characters congregate for the only time to dine, and it’s the weakest link. The double-meaning-laced dialogue feels contrived, lacking the best of Elazzi’s wit, and the confrontations overheat too rapidly. Yet there’s an undeniable truth to the scene’s culmination, when Galanos silently cries.
Until May 21.