A lot can happen in two minutes. In Michele Lee’s award-winning play, two minutes is the amount of time Yvette (Hsiao-Ling Tang) is allotted by her boss to clean the office of an executive at Golden Fields, a rice-focused agribusiness. Nisha (Kristy Best) works late a lot, so she’s often around for Yvette’s speedy cleaning sessions.
The two women are a classic odd couple: Yvette is a Chinese-born single mother with a string of failed businesses to her name and a daughter staring down jail time. Nisha is a young second-generation Australian with a high-powered job and a hipster boyfriend (seriously, the guy drives a food truck).
It's a contentious relationship fractured along class lines and exacerbated by mutual stubbornness; they scuffle over bin etiquette and are dismissive of each other’s standards of cleanliness. But over time, something shifts. Nisha is in the middle of brokering a deal that she believes will advance her career and her standing in the eyes of her boss: getting Golden Fields rice onto supermarket shelves in India. The rice in her nightly Chinese takeaway dinner remains largely untouched as she declares herself a farmer, chases her contacts in West Bengal, and flirts with a colleague. Yvette wipes down the desk, empties the bin, vacuums. And then Nisha starts asking Yvette for advice.
This uneasy, shifting relationship forms the core of Lee’s play. The two actors flip in and out of various bit parts – Yvette’s daughter, and her employer; Nisha’s boyfriend, colleague, boss – but with just two bodies on stage, we never lose a tight focus on these two women. Lee clearly loves these characters, and it’s a treat to watch Tang and Best spar; their flinty comments spark and ignite as they land, the women seemingly energised by each other. It’s a showdown of charisma – Best’s oversized. full-bodied passion and Tang’s quieter, but no less magnetic, derision – and that charisma goes a long way.
But Rice can’t coast on charisma alone, and its plot is bare-bones and schematic; it feels more perfunctory than organic. Nisha’s seemingly ‘together’ persona crumbles, which seems like a given from the moment we meet her, and the third-act conflict between Nisha and Yvette feels like a device to find the play’s end rather than an interpersonal necessity.
Perhaps Lee could have used the relationship between the women to tell larger stories about food cultures, class, and even international diplomacy – there are certainly hints of these larger issues in the script – but instead she stays with Nisha and Yvette, inviting us to bear witness to their personal wins, losses, and lives. The playwright breezes over tougher moments for the sake of banter, and that’s why the pro-forma glimpses of plot (conflict, relationship building, much bigger conflict, resolution) are harder to ignore; we see them too clearly to be unaware of them.
Still, that banter is Rice’s greatest asset. Lee’s dialogue is spry and director Lee Lewis embraces its musical, quickfire quality. The way the two women regard each other – as disagreeable, but inevitable, fellow travellers – is a pleasure to watch as it evolves.
Rice really comes alive in its final moments. In a wry but lovely twist, Lee keeps her play above predictability and sentimentality, choosing instead to leave us somewhere more realistic. It’s this subversion of the usual stories about friendship and odd couples and hard times that throws the familiarity of the previous 80 minute into sharp relief: suddenly there’s something fresh and genuinely exciting thrown into this old storytelling formula. That final, twinkling feint is near-irresistible. Since this is Lee’s debut play it almost feels like a promise that there’s more playful challenge, and clear-eyed lively stories, to come. With more moments like that, her next play is going to be really exciting.