El Rocco Theatre, July 24
Someone had to go first and, four months after the lights went off, live theatre returned to Sydney. The sense of anticipation before this show was a bit like the crackling electricity of going to the theatre as a child: here were real, in-the-flesh actors, after all, rather those screen versions of whom we’ve all seen a nudge too much of late.
Mounting the production (originally slated for May) was a brave move on the part of producer/director Les Solomon, who decided that he and his cast couldn’t wait forever for normality to return, and so set about addressing how to present a play in the COVID-19 context. Problems ranged from rehearsing (initially via Zoom and subsequently socially-distanced) to safely accommodating an audience in the little theatre, while both complying with current restrictions and trying to make the sums add up. A few recalcitrants apart, the 20 audience members wore masks, and the environment felt decidedly safer than a supermarket.
US playwright Keith Bunin’s feisty 2001 play concerns Winston (Samson Alston), a painter attending art school, whose technical accomplishment is admired, but whose paintings are deemed more like exercises than expressions. What he does do rather well, however, is copy other people’s work.
He flats with Jamie (Jasper Bruce), a manic depressive for whom flogging real estate was a poor career choice. When Jamie is left out of his art-dealer father’s will, he hatches a scam that will solve all the money worries of Winston, himself and his singing, waitressing girlfriend Amelia (Rachel Marley) – if Amelia will just take off her clothes for Winston to paint her.
Solomon’s casting and the performances he elicits are excellent. Alston catches Winston’s complex combination of nervy self-consciousness and painting-obsessed emotional detachment. Marely so adroitly portrays Amelia’s wildly differing facets that you sometimes barely credit the same actor is playing the role, and Bruce’s Jamie is a fizzing charismatic who can make everyone love him, except for his dead father and himself. In the second act Jamie’s scam also draws in Tess, and Beth Daly brings to vivid life this gently-satirised art collector who is blessed with many of the play’s best lines, and whom we can laugh at and like simultaneously.
The play trashes the way the art world often values the signature over the work, while also exploring the hollowness at the centre of these characters’ lives – and it’s in trying to balance these two themes that Bunin’s work can wobble. Amelia’s story of losing the long fight to make it as a singer in New York, and Winston’s of expertly wielding a paintbrush while having nothing to say, are both more compelling than the misshapen love triangle that evolves, because the characters’ self-obsession wears thin.
Other problems exist, too. Bunin’s plot has more turning points than you find in British cop shows, which makes the story feel overly contrived, and, once the wonderful Tess exits, the playwright spends too long resolving his own story. The production exacerbates this by stretching out the pauses, which might work with an Annie Baker play, but with Bunin’s this treatment unwinds the tension rather than compounding it, especially in the last quarter. Basically, when the narrative slows, the pace needs to quicken.
Although this is the third time Solomon has produced the play, it’s his first shot at directing it (assisted by Isaac Broadbent), and, despite the pacing issues, the production is highly recommended – especially as it’s the only show in town!