New Orleans-born Melbourne-based playwright Morgan Rose takes on the kitchen sink drama in this tale of a closeted gay teen living in a tiny Australian town
Plays about boredom are tricky to pull off. You need to establish a crushing stasis, but you can’t let that strangle the drama, or worse, induce boredom in the audience. Certainly the two greatest exponents of the form were Chekhov and Beckett; both managed to evoke the hilarious tragedy of existence: that sense of us all laughing into the void. Those writers are always at their funniest precisely when they are at their most despairing (or is that vice versa?). Australian-American playwright Morgan Rose has waded gallantly into this territory with her new play, desert, 6.29pm. It attempts to find some dignity in the quotidian slog of its characters’ lives, characters who aspire to something greater but hold out little hope of change or renewal.
The play opens with a very funny monologue of sexual fantasy, delivered by the matriarch of the family, Crystal (Sarah Sutherland). We only gradually realise the fantastical nature of this monologue, and it’s only really confirmed by the entrance of daughter Xan (Eva Seymour), who cuts through with a nonchalant “What are you doing?” Characters are often walking in on each other, disrupting moments of privacy or intimacy with casual disregard; it makes the family dynamic seem both bolstering and pathological. In other words, fairly typical.
We are soon introduced to dad Rico (Joe Petruzzi), whose pitiful fantasies revolve around him having cancer, and son Jamie (Darcy Kent), who is highly intelligent but plays video games for a living, disappointing himself as much as anyone. His fantasies involve shooting people or demanding more money at work; two options he sees as analogous. The play establishes these fantasy elements – each character falling unexpectedly into reverie – but never truly integrates them thematically. They function merely as reminders of lives half lived.
There aren’t too many characters, and there is little in the way of plot, so it seems perverse of Rose to constantly hint at the play’s dramatic potential without ever letting it explode or come to a head: Xan clearly feels deeply for a girl who has thrown herself off a bridge, but this central emotional through-line carries surprisingly little weight; something about the offhand, wearingly-cynical register of the teenager, combined with the nonchalance of the delivery, undermines the audience’s engagement. Rose has cited the plight of young gay people (particularly those living rurally) as the central motivating factor in the writing, but it’s strangely the least effective element in the play. This is partly down to Seymour’s rather thin and grating performance – she constantly oscillates between wide-eyed exasperation and dead-eyed indifference, without modulation – but it also points to a greater problem.
Rose clearly believes that Xan is her main character, but she’s often distracted by the looping preoccupations of her secondary characters. The main one concerns Jamie, who is hiding, or obfuscating, a relationship with an older woman, Abby (Ella Caldwell). You could argue that this mirrors the latent homosexual yearnings of his younger sister, but it feels like a stretch. The family’s individual narratives rarely intersect with Xan’s, which gives the play a formless, meandering quality. The playwright is probably making a point about our unresolved aspirations, the unspoken dissatisfactions niggling at the heart of our culture, but it’s structurally and dramatically pretty tepid.
Unsurprisingly with a Red Stitch production, there are some beautifully calibrated performances, notably from Kent as the outwardly stoic but crushingly insecure Jamie, and Sutherland as the exasperated but generous Crystal. Ella Caldwell is a welcome breeze as Abby, although she shows up too late and leaves too early. Rose doesn’t exploit the outsider role nearly enough, and one can sense another, more dynamic play lying dormant inside this one.
Romanie Harper’s design, with its improbably limited depth and distracting timber frame, is deliberately ugly but also awkward and haphazard, and Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting is suitably drab. Director Bridget Balodis attempts to usher the material toward the elegiac and touching, but the overall effect is largely torpid. The play is a product of Red Stitch’s INK new playwriting program, and Rose is certainly a promising and proven talent, but the result this time is unfocused and ineffectual. In this regard, it perfectly mirrors its characters’ lives.