Good neighbours shouldn't always become good friends, according to Red Stitch's latest
Anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment – let’s face it, anyone who’s ever had neighbours – will recognise the peculiar discomfort that comes from forced intimacy; it’s a quirk of modern city living that, while we don’t want to seem completely shut off from those who occupy our adjacent spaces, we don’t necessarily want to get too close too soon, lest things get weird. In French–Canadian playwright Catherine-Anne Toupin’s play Right Now, things get weird real fast, and go rapidly down hill from there.
Alice (Christina O’Neill) and her doctor husband Ben (Dushan Phillips) have been living in their apartment for the last six months, but it’s clear from the outset that there is something off – they seem to be struggling with a crying newborn, but they’re also emotionally distant and strangely formal with each other. One day when Alice is alone, the neighbour Juliette (Olga Makeeva) from across the hall introduces herself and wheedles her way in. She is followed closely by her son Francois (Mark Wilson), a grinning idiot of a man, dressed ludicrously in shorts and high-sitting socks. They admire the renovation a little too much, they pry and inveigle. When Ben comes home that night, Alice informs him that the neighbours have invited themselves around for drinks that Friday.
When they return, Juliette and Francois bring the pater, Gilles (Joe Petruzzi), not as odd as his wife and son but also a little too admiring of the place. He turns out to be a famous medical theorist, and a hero of Ben’s. This subtly shifts the dynamic, alienating Alice and pulling slightly at the threads of her composure. When the baby starts to cry and Alice insists on attending it, we begin to suspect that not all is right with her sanity. Of course, we’re not going to abandon her to these freakishly strange guests either. We might even have to sacrifice a little of our own sanity to stick by her.
Toupin’s play is heavily influenced from a number of directions. There’s more than a whiff of early Pinter in there – this play could easily be seen as a ‘comedy of menace’ – but also hints of David Lynch, Shirley Jackson and even Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double. It’s so influenced, it looks dangerously like derivation; stacked up against these antecedents, the play feels intellectually and emotionally glib. Deep grief and alienation are the central themes, but they remain on the surface of the work and have a taint of exploitation about them. Director Katy Maudlin never settles on a unifying playing style, shifting randomly from high camp to quiet naturalism, and the results are haphazard and unconvincing.
The performances are also uneven. O’Neill and Phillips are both good actors with proven track records, but while they try to keep things naturalistic, neither are at their best here. Alice is the jittery heart of the play, and her maternal grief needs to be the muscle that makes it beat, but O’Neill occupies a limited emotional register – she seems to hover in a state of mild confusion throughout – and the result is a lack of focus. Phillips is strong for a while, but he hams a crucial emotional breakdown and never recovers.
As the odd-bod son who’s long disappointed his parents but also wields a strange power over them, Wilson is electric. His toothy grin suggests a cartoon Joker, and for a while it seems that he’s going to calcify into a boob, a willing patsy. But his switch to outright menace is so effective it disguises its inevitability. He’s genuinely scary, in ways that the other actors never quite manage. Makeeva is hilarious as Juliette; she underpays the creepiness, but is the only actor on stage who brings out the pathos the piece seems to require.
Red Stitch have a hit-and-miss record with plays that flirt with surrealism, and this production highlights the company’s ambivalence with the form. Even when the material demands a rejection of naturalism, the tendency towards it persists. Emily Barrie’s set and costumes (with its nondescript furniture and dull colour palette) only serve to highlight a lack of imagination. Last year, Stephen Nicolazzo’s production of The Moors proved that, with the right director, the company can produce something truly odd and memorable. That was a flawed play, and so is this, but the result couldn’t have been more different.