Constellations

Eternity Playhouse, August 12

Sam O'Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Written by British playwright Nick Payne when he was just 29, Constellations was rapturously received in the UK in 2012. In January, Jake Gyllenhaal stars in a Broadway production.

Grab the chance to see it here because it really is an ingeniously constructed, beautifully written two-hander – and this Darlinghurst Theatre Company production, directed by Anthony Skuse, more than does it justice.

Marianne (Emma Palmer) is a vivacious, voluble physicist interested in the “multiverse” theory. Roland (Sam O’Sullivan) is a laid-back beekeeper. They meet at a barbecue. She goes over to chat but he snubs her, saying he’s married. End of story. Or is it? The scene is then replayed again and again, each time with a slightly different outcome.

This pattern repeats throughout the play at different points in their relationship. But no matter how different possible outcomes we experience, they all end in imminent, untimely death.

Early on, Marianne says to Roland: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made, and never made, exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

Although Payne uses the idea of parallel universes for the play’s structure, he doesn’t actually explore the philosophical and scientific ideas around this in any depth. Instead, the play riffs on the idea of “what if?” and the way our lives could go in so many different directions depending on the little choices we make, the people we meet, when we meet them, and so on. Think Sliding Doors meets Groundhog Day (happening here and now in our world – or so it seemed to me).

Staged on Gez Xavier Mansfield’s wonderfully spare set, which opens up the theatre to its bare, beautiful walls, Skuse directs with great precision but lightness of touch giving the piece room to breathe while putting the focus firmly on the human dimension.

Both actors are superb, bringing untold nuance to numerous variations of similar lines (which must make it devilish hard to learn), while creating totally consistent, convincing characters. The way the play loops back on itself also means they frequently have to turn on a dime emotionally, ending one phase in deepest melancholy before returning to perky cheeriness seconds later.

Palmer has the added challenge of portraying Marianne’s developing aphasia (which affects language), which she does in heartbreaking fashion. What’s more, they both nail the English accents – and from two different regions, no less. (Praise to the vocal and dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley).

Sara Swersky’s lighting and Marty Jamieson’s subtle sound also play their part in a beautifully modulated production.

The play runs a tight 80 minutes, which is the perfect length. Any longer and it could start to wear thin. Constellations may wear its scientific conceit very lightly but Skuse’s exquisite, moving production enthralls. Recommended.

Constellations runs at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until September 7. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 17

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Stop Kiss

ATYP Studio, March 13

Gabrielle Scawthorn and Olivia Stambouliah. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

Gabrielle Scawthorn and Olivia Stambouliah. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

Diana Son’s gentle drama Stop Kiss was first staged in New York in 1998 at a time when homophobia and gay hate crimes were very much in the news.

Pivoting on a random act of violence perpetrated against two women, the production resonates freshly in Sydney given the current debate about alcohol fuelled violence and coward punches.

Callie (Olivia Stambouliah) is a stylish, breezy New Yorker who eats at all the right restaurants yet “swerves” through life avoiding commitment. She isn’t fulfilled by her job as a helicopter traffic reporter, while her boyfriend George is a more of a friend with benefits.

Sara (Gabrielle Scawthorn), on the other hand, who has just moved to the Big Apple from St Louis against the wishes of her family, has a quiet determination about her. Excited to be in New York, and comfortable in herself, she is idealistically committed to her job as a teacher at a disadvantaged school in the Bronx.

Their friendship begins awkwardly but gradually a mutual attraction between them blossoms into something more.

The play moves back and forth in time with scenes leading up to the violent act at its core, and its aftermath. Structured so that we slowly discover what happened at the same time as we watch their deepening relationship, it’s heartbreaking knowing what is coming as their love blossoms.

Directed by Anthony Skuse for Unlikely Productions (in association with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras), Skuse shows once again what a sensitive director he is. Staged on Gez Xavier Mansfield’s minimal set, the play unfolds with an unforced fluency that draws you in to the story. Skuse knows just when to add something (music, a song) and when to put the focus tightly on the actors. Where the play could become sentimental, he instead gives us unadorned, heartfelt truth.

Stambouliah and Scawthorn are both excellent, each creating entirely believable characters and mining the frissons, false starts, misunderstandings and tenderness in their relationship beautifully. The rapport between them fairly crackles and the outcome of their relationship strikes at the heart.

Aaron Tsindos and Ben McIvor are also impressive as the men in their lives.

Stop Kiss has a clear political message but delivers it gently, without didactic raging, in a sweet, funny, sad play – the subtlety of which is matched by Skuse’s production. Well worth a look.

Stop Kiss runs until March 22. Bookings: www.atyp.com.au or 02 9270 2400 

Falsettos

Eternity Playhouse, February 11

Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall, Elise McCann and Margi de Ferranti. Photo: Helen White

Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall, Elise McCann and Margi de Ferranti. Photo: Helen White

William Finn’s Falsettos is an intelligent, witty, tender musical. However, the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production has so much stage business going on that it takes a fair amount of time before it finally hits its mark and draws you in emotionally.

With witty lyrics and a beautiful, eclectic score by Finn, who also co-wrote the book with James Lapine, the economical, sung-through show consists of two one-act musicals written a decade apart.

The first act, March of the Falsettos, which premiered in 1981, is set in New York in 1979 against the backdrop of gay liberation. The second act Falsettoland, which premiered in 1991, is set in 1981 when “something bad” – later identified as the deadly AIDS virus – was beginning to ravage the gay community. They were combined as Falsettos in 1992. Two decades on, the times may be different but Falsettos still feels relevant and moving.

It tells the story of Marvin (Tamlyn Henderson), a Jewish father who leaves his wife Trina (Katrina Retallick) and young son Jason (Anthony Garcia on opening night) for a gay man called Whizzer (Ben Hall). However, Marvin wants it all and tries to create a tight knit family with all of them living together. The tensions send Trina off to see Marvin’s shrink Mendel (Stephen Anderson) who she ends up marrying, further complicating the web of relationships.

The second act, in which Jason’s Bar Mitzvah looms, also introduces Marvin’s lesbian neighbours Dr Charlotte (Margi de Ferranti) and Cordelia (Elise McCann).

As Frank Rich so eloquently put it in his New York Times review, the show is not just about Marvin but “about all its people together, a warring modern family divided in sexuality but finally inseparable in love and death.”

As anticipated, the new Eternity Playhouse proves a lovely space for a small-scale musical. The 200-seat venue is intimate enough for the show to be performed without amplification – and therefore with just a piano. Gez Xavier Mansfield’s set has co-musical director Nigel Ubrihien sitting at a grand piano in an alcove built into the back wall of the set, which works a treat – as does Ubrihien’s sensitive accompaniment.

The rest of the set consists of large wooden, coffin-shaped boxes, which may have been chosen to help with the acoustics but make for some fairly clunky scene changing as the cast drags them around.

More problematic is the barrage of stage business from director Stephen Colyer. The first act in particular is so busy, tricksy and over-choreographed that it distracts from the songs and diminishes our emotional connection with the characters.

For the very funny opening number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, the actors appear in matching grey pants, white shirts and Groucho Marx-like false noses. Later there’s a blow-up doll, which feels tacky, particularly when Jason is handling it. Retallick wears a steel mesh basket on her head while singing “Trina’s Song”. Quite why she also lines up six kitchen sponges I’m not sure. (The reason for the cast carrying their scores for the opening number and briefly later when Whizzer is ill also eluded me).

For Trina’s big, show-stopping number “I’m Breaking Down” Retallick has to do a workout routine on an aerobic stepper. She still got a well-deserved, rousing response but, as in numerous other instances during the show, it felt that the choreography was competing with the song.

Even Jason’s poignant little musical interludes are accompanied by a distracting pattern of hand movements.

A moment of stillness towards the end of Act I comes as blessed relief. Marvin and Jason sit facing each other. Without moving, Henderson focuses on his son and sings the touching lullaby-like “Father to Son” and for the first time the emotion feels real.

Ben Hall, Margi de Ferranti, Elise McCann, Tamlyn Henderson, Isaac Shaw, Katrina Retallick, Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White

Ben Hall, Margi de Ferranti, Elise McCann, Tamlyn Henderson, Isaac Shaw, Katrina Retallick, Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White

The second act is a big improvement despite masks with clown noses. Instead of the matching grey and white outfits, the characters appear in colourful costumes that help define their characters and the stage business isn’t so relentless – though why, oh why, in the middle of Marvin’s beautiful love ballad “What More Can I Say”, movingly sung by Henderson to a sleeping Whizzer, does Colyer have him take a pee?

Overall, however, the second act hits its moments. The ensemble number “The Baseball Game” in which the extended family goes to watch “Jewish boys who can’t play baseball play baseball” is very funny and snappily performed. The quartet “Unlikely Lovers” is also a poignant moment, impressively sung by Henderson, Hall, De Ferranti and McCann. And even though the ending of the musical is a little sentimental, Colyer shows more restraint here and allows the material to speak for itself with touching results.

The cast works extremely hard and all have their moment. Retallick captures Trina’s zesty vim and neuroses with an exuberant performance, her renowned comic chops as sure as ever. Henderson does a good job of conveying Marvin’s arc from self-absorption to a more mature appreciation of family and love, becoming ever more engaging as the show progresses, while Anderson brings a kooky warmth to the role of Mendel.

But on opening night it was 13-year old Garcia who all but stole the show, handling Jason’s conflicted emotions superbly well for his age, singing securely and exuding an effortless ease and sense of timing on stage.

There’s no doubting Colyer’s love for the show in which he has found “inspiration, encouragement and consolation” as he writes in the theatre program. Perhaps it’s because of his passion for it that he has tried to do too much with it at times.

Sydney hasn’t seen a professional staging of Falsettos since the wonderful Sydney Theatre Company version in 1994. (The New Theatre also staged a production in 2004, which I didn’t see). Musical theatre aficiandos will therefore be excited at the chance to see it now. It is a beautiful little show and despite my reservations about this production, there’s more than enough in it that’s enjoyable to make it well worth seeing.

Falsettos plays at the Eternity Playhouse until March 16 as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Bookings: darlinghursttheatre.com