By Adam Rafferty
Plays that take on contemporary issues always guarantee a warm welcome from audiences who enjoy the familiarity of recent societal issues being woven amongst fiction. Developed through Red Stitch’s INK program, Ross Mueller’s pandemic set comedy A Simple of Act of Kindness hinges it’s humour on the pain of that all too recent experience, while also reflecting the volatility of the current real estate market, to create a satire about a family experiencing both a literal and metaphorical breakdown.
Sophia (Lou Wall) is desperate to enter the housing market, so desperate that she’s willing to tell any number of lies to get her father to make good on his promise to match whatever she’s able to save herself. Even so far as to tell him that she’s going to buy a property with her fiancé, who is actually her gay mate Greg (Khisraw Jones-Shukoor), who’s also keen to get his first foot on the property ladder.
By using the combined sum of their funds, Sophia can squeeze the dollar amount she needs out of her dad Tony (Joe Petruzzi) to buy a boxy 2-bedroom apartment she’s found in the Western suburbs, where the waft from the fertiliser plant is ever present. Coming from the other side of town, Tony isn’t very keen on the place, but agrees to the deal without telling Sophia’s mum Julie (Sarah Sutherland). Julie’s too busy focusing on her latest venture anyway. She’s planning to stand for the Stonnington City Council and she wants Sophia to run her campaign. Sutherland takes a brilliant turn at a Brighton ma’am (or is that Toorak?), bedecked in heavy gold jewellery and leopard print scarf, she perfectly drawls her way through every scene.
Of course, it doesn’t take long after Sophia and Greg have moved in, for their deception with Julie to start forming cracks, and in even less time the building is doing the same. Having skipped through building inspections before buying, it seems the property has ‘concrete cancer’, and being built more than ten years prior, the structural issues are no longer covered by insurance.
Ross Mueller takes cues from the David Williamson comedy playbook by infusing his writing with innumerable topical and pop-culture titbits to ensure the audience can enjoy themselves by identifying the references even if the story is falling off the rails, which it unfortunately does in the second act.
Despite strong performances from the ensemble cast, who really pitch it for the back of the room so that there’s no chance a joke is missed, the humour spins from topical to farcical very quickly and the tone of the piece becomes difficult to decipher, even with Peter Houghton’s clearly choreographed direction.
Using the pandemic as a plot point to force the four characters to live under the same roof is a fun gambit, but it feels like Mueller couldn’t find one simple resolution to the situation he’d put his characters in, so he decided to shoot for them all. Dark homicidal overtones combine with sweet family reconciliations all driven through long maniacal speeches. What starts with great promise of invention ends quite tritely. It’s not entirely unsatisfying, but it certainly doesn’t leave you feeling either content or disturbed, just somewhere in the undefined middle.
Jacob Battista and Sophie Woodward – doing double time on sets and costumes – achieve some technical excellence with their ever increasing ‘concrete crack’, aided by Amelia Lever-Davidson’s astute lighting design and ominous sound from David Franzke. It never ceases to amaze me what great effects Red Stitch can achieve in their humble home venue.
This is the kind of play that requires a buzzed-up crowd full of cacklers to find its feet and take everyone along for the ride. But without that sort of audience filling the theatre this is an admirable new work that feels like it might become ephemera quite quickly.
Image: Jodie Hutchinson