Musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes AM stars with stage and screen favourite Virginia Gay in a new play by Lally Katz, about Jewish grandmothers
Jewish humour is now thoroughly ubiquitous in Western culture; from the overt Yiddish cadences in Seinfeld and Big Bang Theory to the excruciating awkwardness of Sacha Baron Cohen, the Jewish sensibility has provided a rich vein of laughs well beyond the promised land (read: New York). In Australia we’ve had Austen Tayshus and John Safran, but it’s hard to think of many Jewish playwrights who’ve mined their rich comedic heritage for the stage. Apart, of course, from Lally Katz. Katz was born in the States but was raised in Canberra and trained at VCA, and has had a thriving career here and overseas trading a very unique style: she’s never been afraid of bringing a little surreality, an off-key dreamlike quality, to her otherwise suburbanite milieu. It tends to grate or charm, depending on your inclinations.
Her new play, the first of two premieres she has this year, is Minnie & Liraz. Set in a Caulfield nursing home, it centres on two nonagenarians with a talent for bridge. Minnie (Nancye Hayes) is married to the curmudgeon Morris (Rhys McConnochie), who delights in announcing his hatred for everything other than his wife and their only grandchild, Rachel (Virginia Gay). Liraz (Sue Jones) is a widow, and relies on visits from her only grandchild Ichabod (Peter Paltos) to break her desultory routine. And yet, she still has her bridge.
Minnie is the Autumn Road Retirement Village’s undisputed card sharp, even though she’s never actually taken out the championship. Her playing partner has just died, and Liraz sees an opportunity. Together, so she reckons, they can not only dominate Autumn Road, they can take the State Cup. Minnie detests the idea of partnering with the crass and salivating Liraz, but decides to leverage her talent to help her granddaughter get her hooks on Ichabod before her biological clock stops.
At this point the play could go several ways: it could become a gentle, poignant meditation on death and time; it could become a delicious comedy of manners, sending up the aged and ageing; it could become a dark farce spinning on the concept of regret and expectation. And in some ways, Katz goes for all three. Not one of them works, because there’s no grounded psychological basis for the characters’ actions. There is nothing solid that would give the play some dramatic traction; there are plenty of funny lines, but once they’ve landed they dissipate and dissolve.
The actors try their best with very little. Jones’ performance has the most impact; she chews and sucks every last ounce of flavour from her lines, and has an impish wickedness to her delivery that captivates. Hayes is less successful as the more refined Minnie; she fails to suggest any depth to her regrets as a mother or wife, which tends to dampen her reversals late in the piece. McConnochie is excellent as a man who wants only to age peacefully with his life partner, and Gay works overtime to wring every moment of pathos and credibility from what is an otherwise poorly written part. Rachel swings wildly from sophisticated school principal to bashful teenager, and finally to underwhelming self-help guru without any psychological steps in between.
Anne-Louise Sarks’ direction is either heavy-handed or underdone: for example, Morris’ ridiculous war monologue is dramatised where it needed to just be delivered, but then interesting underlying tensions in the relationships are completely ignored. Sarks has directed Katz often (from Return to Earth to Stories I Want to Tell You in Person), so it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the effect is intentional. Mel Page’s costumes are fantastic, but her deliberately awful peach set is cumbersome, and its revolves to nowhere ultimately prove tiresome. Matt Scott’s lighting design is functional, but Stefan Gregory’s sound design is bizarrely loud and out of kilter.
At one point, Liraz says, “I like my humour dark” – and the play eventually tries to get very dark indeed – but without the kind of savage wit you’d get from Joe Orton or the keen insight into personality you see from Annie Baker, this darkness begins to look like desperation. Worse, the very Jewishness of the humour, those great putdowns and self-deprecations, tend to rapidly wear thin when they’re unmoored from the very real suffering and sadness they’re designed to deflect. Katz is a playwright with a lot of talent but this work seems like it would have worked better as a television sitcom: they run for half an hour, reset their one-note characters after every episode, and easily survive lapses into outright silliness. Theatre is far less forgiving.