Friday, 24 May 2013

Ruben Guthrie, NUTS

Writer Brendan Cowell has served as a useful "good luck" sign for some of Canberra's younger theatre companies - Centrepiece performed his play "Men" in 2005 as their second production, and the current incarnation of NUTS did his play "Bed" in 2008, also fairly early on in their run. He's a tough, funny writer with a great ear for dialogue and an eye for modern Australian society that cuts pretty deep.

His play Ruben Guthrie is about a young successful ad-writer who begins to come unstuck when his drug-and-alcohol fuelled lifestyle sends him into Alcoholics Anonymous. As he begins to redefine his relationship with alcohol, his relationships with his fiance, his parents, his job and his best friend are also redefined.

It's a very solid play with a marathon lead role for the actor playing Ruben - and at first, I was worried Lewis Meegan wasn't up to the task. He started off running his lines very fast, almost gabbling them into incomprehensibility- as Ruben's first AA meeting tells about the incident that got him there. But he settles into a good groove as Ruben's journey softens him and strips him of his certainties, Meegan hits the necessary emotional notes soundly.

Elsewhere, both the writing and the performances sometimes skate the edge of caricature - in particular, Ruben's mum and dad (played by Dean Batten and Jessica Symonds) - who get all the laughs from the script required, but don't often get any deeper (though Batten's final line does hit the heart like a sledgehammer). Part of Cowell's point here is that Ruben's alcoholism isn't just a personal phenomenon - it's part of a family cycle - but by playing the parents as just figures of fun, you lose the tragi-part of the tragi-comedy.

As Ruben's boss, Michael Bones similarly doesn't really get past the one note caricature level of the sleazy enabler (the writing has a few more complex notes as the character's also an addict, but they're not really engaged with very much).

Ruben's two girlfriends - teenage Czechoslovakian supermodel Zoya (Gabrielle Dutton) , and fellow AA member Virginia (Alexandra Davis)- are probably the most under-written of the roles - partially, I think, because to explore them and round them more fully bears the threat that it may make Ruben's behaviour less likeable and expose that his behaviour pre-and-post AA can be quite self-serving. There's indications that Zoya's suffered quite a lot at the hands of Ruben (he's reported as starting his relationship with her when she was 16 and he was 26, which is borderline paedophilic), but with it only being reported rather than shown, it's not something the audience can really take to heart, and Zoya's really never allowed to be vulnerable.  Similarly, Virginia's clearly got her own personal history and baggage that she brings into the relationship, which is fascinating material to mine, and builds up to the end of the first act -  then is largely thrown away so that she can be discarded offstage as part of Ruben's downward spiral. Casting similarly aged actors as Ruben, Zoya and Virginia really hurts here - the script suggests Virginia can be a decade older than Ruben, and that age gap may have given the relationship that extra side it needs (although I still think Cowell writing Virginia out offstage is a massive mis-step).

Ruben's best mate Damian runs away with some of the best comedy of the play, and in Alex Battye's performance, we get our other character that gets to three dimensions. Blokey, companionate, and ultimately dark enabler, Battye hits the cynical notes and the heartfelt ones strongly and clearly.

The set, by Shaun Wykes, is nicely adaptable and looks gorgeous (all those tempting bottles of alcohol, which ... would make for a great cast party at the end of the season, except that after weeks of rehearsing and performing a play on the dangers of alcholism, perhaps everyone would be happier with mineral water and a salada). Lighting by Owen Horton gives the tiny space of the Drama lab different moods and feels in good style. One minor props note - when the characters start consuming mountains of cocaine towards the end, I picked up the odour of scented baby powder, which ... I'm pretty sure was not the intent.

I've found myself more critical of this production while writing than I was while watching it - the broadness of some of the performances is entertaining in the theatre, but less handy when writing critically. And this is an incredibly engaging piece - just one that, maybe, doesn't quite cut as deep in this production as it could have. But given 90% of people probably go to the theatre to enjoy themselves rather than have their hearts ripped out and stomped on repeatedly, I'm not sure this matters to anyone else.

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