Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.

Fury, Stories I Want to Tell You in Person

Fury

Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, April 19

JOANNA Murray-Smith recently spoke on radio of the seductive power of argument, of recalling the sound of her parents and their friends talking passionately long into the night. Those long-evaporated murmurs are the wellspring of Fury, Murray-Smith’s absorbing new play.

Alice (Sarah Peirse) is a neuroscientist at the top of her game and about to receive a huge honour when her 16-year-old son Joe (Harry Greenwood) does something incendiary. Alice is as aghast as you’d expect of any intelligent, socially committed, left-leaning woman and mother, but Joe’s act of rebellion, assertion, independence, whatever, opens up family fault lines at the very moment Alice’s life is up for public scrutiny.

Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse in Fury. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse in Fury. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“You’re not who you said you were,” her novelist husband Patrick is driven to say as Alice must finally acknowledge an intellectually messy and morally grubby truth.

Under Andrew Upton’s direction the play’s concerns unfold crisply in a series of set-piece conversations and confrontations. Murray-Smith’s familiar style of whip-smart dialogue and ever-so-slightly heightened realism is matched perfectly by designer David Fleischer’s setting of monolithic grey walls and a desirable tiled floor. It’s a cool, cerebral space in which outbursts of emotion look surprising, as if rare here.

Alice says in the play’s opening scene that there’s “always something to hide” but it doesn’t appear to occur to her that this is more than a clever quip to a journalist.  Ah, yes, the journalist. Murray-Smith gives a writer from a student rag a key role but despite Geraldine Hakewill’s creditable efforts to animate the part it never rings true. Rebecca is a device, not a character, and it’s scarcely credible she would get this degree of access to Alice and Patrick, played with rumpled defensiveness by Robert Menzies.

That jarring note aside, Fury proceeds at a compelling pace for its 100 minutes or so. The many themes emerge with great clarity, among them the porous line between idealism and self-centredness, the clash of generations, the centrality of family, the secret and changing self, the animating power of rage. Murray-Smith hones her lines to a high sheen that can introduce a whiff of the lecture room but the pay-off is in her acutely aware observations. There’s the occasional zinger too: vegans beware.

Peirse has a cracker of a role in Alice and gets the fragility not far beneath the witty, ultra-capable surface. Greenwood, making his Sydney Theatre Company debut, is extraordinarily good as the truculent, initially monosyllabic youth, making him brightly alive and engaging. And Fury is possibly at its most challenging and fascinating through the articulate pragmatism of Annie and Bob (Claire Jones and Yure Covich, both wonderful), the rock-solid working-class parents of Joe’s sidekick in crime, the unseen Trevor.

When I returned home from Fury’s opening the news was dominated by the two young men believed to have been responsible for the Boston bombings. Parallels with Fury aren’t exact but there’s enough for the play to feel very timely.

Ends June 8.

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person

Belvoir Downstairs, April 18

IF LALLY Katz has a slow spell in her increasingly impressive playwriting career she could always turn to stand-up comedy. Which she’s essentially done with Stories I Want to Tell You in Person, an exuberant whirl through her life in which she touches on matters of love, theatre, obsession and the supernatural.

Katz claims an appearance as a rabbit is her only previous onstage experience but she’s a natural performer: funny, super-likeable, vibrant and with a fund of fabulous anecdotes and a willingness to use anything to get a laugh, no matter how personal or humiliating. My favourite bit concerns a hostile transvestite karaoke bar and the massacre of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina but the show is pretty much a hoot from start to finish.

Lally Katz in Stories I Want to Tell You in Person. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Lally Katz in Stories I Want to Tell You in Person. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person came about after an earlier Belvoir commission fell into a heap. With Katz’s gift for creating intimate, magical and emotionally rich worlds (Neighbourhood Watch, Smashed) she was perhaps a courageous choice for a piece about the global financial crisis, but that was the gig. The play is yet to be produced, possibly because it was written so quickly. Katz had her mind on other things, chief among them how to be successful in love as well as in work. She turned to psychics for help, a quest that was extremely expensive and, as it turns out, ripe for theatrical exploitation.

And herein lies the enjoyable slipperiness of Stories I Want to Tell You. Was Katz truly seeking enlightenment in tarot, palm and crystal ball readings on 14th and 25th streets in New York? Or was she gathering material? She says several times she has to live what she writes, but how calculated that equation is remains unknown and probably unknowable. Whatever the truth – and after all, what is truth? – this particular instance of it ended with Katz alone on the Belvoir Downstairs stage, standing in front of a glittering gold curtain, poured into tight black jeans and pouring out her stories with juicy frankness.

Although it raised knowing laughs, a tacked-on ending is slightly awkward. It refers to the last-minute postponement of Katz’s original opening night due to illness and at this point the polish slipped and Katz the person rather than Katz the performer appeared. The epilogue points up two things: that those who really know their theatre will get most enjoyment from the show, and that one should never forget the amount of artifice there is in the onstage presentation of a life.

Ends May 26. Then Malthouse, Melbourne, August 9-25

These reviews first appeared in The Australian on April 22