The Australia Project
nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
June 15, 2006
Program Three (reviewed by Martin Denton)
If I were a playwright and I had been given the assignment that The Production Company's artistic director Mark Armstrong gave the baker's dozen he commissioned to create the pieces in The Australia Project—i.e., to write a play about "what they thought of when they thought of Australia"— I'd like to think that I'd have taken the mission seriously and done some serious exploration of a country and a continent that I know and understand much less well than I ought to.
Alas—and as noted below by my colleagues in their reviews of the Project's previous two programs—few if any of the playwrights included here have particularly risen to this interesting challenge. Are we so wrapped up in our petty little lives as Americans and as America that we're unable to look beyond, at the larger world around us?
So it would seem: the two strong works in this episode of The Australia Project use the land down under merely as a setting for young Americans working out personal struggles. In Ken Urban's Mushroom (which is by far the most imaginative and original piece of the evening), a gay man traces a life-changing tragedy of apocalyptic proportions to a fling he once had with an Australian (and "he wasn’t even Australian, truth be told"). Urban's piece, which combines dreams and levels of reality in his trademark arresting fashion to tell a story of deep panics and scars, is quite lovely, and features at least one splendid performance (by Ani Bluhm, as the young man's friend, Laura) and a noteworthy bit of theatrical design (the man's striking T-shirt, created by Judy Elkan). This play will undoubtedly have a life beyond The Australia Project.
Courtney Baron's Not Our Last Hurrah also features some imaginative writing, though its use of the near-ubiquitous direct address technique as principal dramatic device suggests a laziness that I'd like to see many of our newer playwrights eschew. This is the one play that actually interacts with Australia as a setting: two women (presumably lovers) decide more or less out-of-the-blue to hop on a plane to Sydney because one of them used to obsess about Olivia Newton-John and koala bears when she was a kid. Not Our Last Hurrah has more local color than the other items on the bill, and under Josh Hecht's direction features two fine performances by Mary Cross and Marni Penning. But the play's ending really put me off: it seems that the woman who loved Australia when she was younger has the gene for breast cancer, and this trip is a "last chance" journey as she may one day get very sick. This smacks so much of self-indulgence: we all have a gene for death, after all; why does this (currently) healthy woman think she's somehow more deserving than the rest of us? Baron's attempt at nobility falls very flat, and hurts her play enormously.
But at least Baron took the time to write an interesting play. The evening's two best-known contributors, Kate Moira Ryan and Michael John Garcés, failed to do even that. Garcés's piece, an overlong wannabe-thriller called Adelaide (why?) squanders its first 15 minutes in an argument between a pair of disagreeable American tourists in an Australian hotel room, who bicker about why they're here and what they're supposed to be doing, all of it couched in cryptic Beckettian/Pinteresque riddles that suggest they might be characters in Waiting for Godot or The Dumb-Waiter. The truth proves more prosaic but actually quite intriguing nonetheless, as it's revealed that they are somehow embroiled in a possible terrorist plot against the nation they've come to visit. I wish Garcés had dispensed with the stylized game-playing and gotten right to the point, because there's a powerful idea buried inside this piece. But it's only barely realized as rendered here.
Ryan's offering, The Fatal Shore, isn't even a play; it's a fifth-rate comedy sketch that manages to be offensive to Australians (and Germans, and Japanese, and middle-aged suburban theatre-goers) as well as to the off-off-Broadway theatre itself. Two actors with terrible Australian accents purport to be giving a presentation from the Australian tourism board, the thrust of which is that everything you can come in contact with in Australia (e.g., jellyfish, cassowaries, etc.) will kill you. When a supposed "audience member" objects (loudly proclaiming that she has subscriptions to the Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club), the actors invite her on stage, ostensibly to give her a prize, but actually simply to cap a lame skit for which Ryan has no ending. What this outburst of meta-theatricality has to do with is anybody's guess. Ryan, who has a lot of impressive credits, should be ashamed of herself for thinking she can get away with pawning off a piece this pathetically tasteless and witless, even on a company much smaller than the one's she used to working with. The Fatal Shore may well be, in fact, the very worst play I've ever seen in any evening of ten-minute plays, and believe me, that's saying something.
Although Elizabeth Meriwether's The Sound in the Throat, in which a woman punishes her roving mate by pretending to be a dingo (honest!), gives The Fatal Shore a run for its money. This exercise in foolishness is redeemed only by a terrific comic performance by Will Jackson Harper as the hapless male of the duo, who's as confused and embarrassed by the woman's behavior as the audience ought to be.
Program Two (reviewed by Michael Criscuolo)
The second installment of The Australia Project features some fine acting, directing, and production design. As for the plays themselves…well, that's another story. These four one-acts, which strive to uncover what American writers think about Australia, reveal that, aside from mass cultural clichés like Foster's beer commercials and the phrase "Down under," they don't seem to know much about it at all. Which may be the point: that here in America, we only judge a book by its cover. But, still, The Australia Project needs more than that to sustain its 75 intermissionless minutes.
The evening's first play, Terra Australis Incognito by Trista Baldwin, starts with a young woman, Ann, voicing her fantasies of bedding dozens of Aussie bohunks. She imagines them to be strong, dusty renegades of the outback. When she finally meets a genuine Australian guy, Will, he turns out to be the total opposite: he's clean, polite, and well-groomed. And he's a little passive—quite a far cry from the aggressive, take-charge types in her imagination. Even though she goes home with him, she walks away from their encounter disappointed. The play's title refers to the name given to Australia by European explorers, which means "the phantom imaginary continent," where Ann's dream lover no doubt resides. Baldwin creates a believable, if somewhat one-dimensional protagonist (played well by the talented Mary Cross), but puts her in an underwhelming situation. Ann's post-tryst letdown is not compelling enough to be dramatically interesting or revelatory about the author's attitude toward "the unknown southern land" (another definition for the play's title).
The conceit of Kathryn Walat's Out of Nothing is that its protagonists, a young couple named Larry and Michelle, are on their way back from an Australian vacation when their plane crashes and leaves them stranded on a deserted island. Turns out they're two of the more unpopular characters on the television show Lost (as in, we've never heard of them). On the night I attended, those members of the audience familiar with the TV show (admittedly, most of them) found Out of Nothing to be funny and quite enjoyable. Personally, I'm not familiar with the show, and found the play to be a naval-gazing inside joke.
Next up is Melbourne by Stephen Belber, in which a nameless man meets the woman of his dreams despite his announcement at the top of the play that "this isn't a love story." The woman's name, it turns out, is Melbourne, and throughout this largely wordless play, she and the man initiate an unusual courtship that includes her smacking his butt, ordering him to touch her breasts, and the two of them squeezing fruit juice on themselves. Belber eloquently navigates the dominant/submissive vibe running through the couple's interactions, and Melbourne is acted superbly by Quentin Mare and Megan McQuillan. Director Mark Armstrong gives the play plenty of room to breathe, making sure the actors take their time so that their budding romance rings true. However, it's unclear if Belber intends his heroine to be a symbolic stand-in for her namesake, or the country as a whole. If so…well, that'd be pretty weird.
Finally, there is Frank Basloe's Famished, which juxtaposes the life of a New York actor with an infamous Australian historical figure. Jeff, a self-proclaimed Method actor, is getting ready to play Alexander Pearce, a well-reputed 19th century cannibal. Both he and Pearce sit on opposite sides of the stage, and tell their respective stories (Pearce, about his turn towards cannibalism; Jeff's, about his preparation for the play). As Famished moves along, Pearce's journey becomes more compelling while Jeff's becomes more implausible (any actor willing to go to the lengths Jeff goes to ought to be committed). Vayu O'Donnell and Michael Szeles both give good performances as Pearce and Jeff, respectively, and Stewart J. Zully's direction is assured. But, Pearce's story is more than enough for Famished. It's far more interesting than Jeff's tale, and perhaps Basloe will think to revisit it in the future with such revisions in mind.
All in all, the second part of The Australia Project is a noble experiment that continues to evolve. Hopefully, the third installment will aim for more substance and meaning than this one does.
Program One (reviewed by Miriam Felton-Dansky)
"The first time I went to Australia," explains The Production Company's artistic director, Mark Armstrong, in his director's note, "I was immediately struck by how each citizen seemed to see herself in perpetual dialogue with the United States." But does that sense of dialogue go two ways? That's what The Australia Project, in which 13 American playwrights explore their associations with Down Under, asks. And judging by the results (so far), the answer seems to be: not really. The most salient feature of the four plays that comprise Program One (the first of three programs of short plays) is that they stick to obvious subjects such as Aussie accents, convicted felons, and Aboriginals—hinting that Americans know the Australian stereotypes, and little beyond.
The fun of The Australia Project, which is staged on a smart set with abstractions of the Australian map on the walls, is in seeing how the southern continent will make its appearance in each work. In Brett C. Leonard's Bobo an' Snyder an' a Girl From Down Under, two Thompson Street couch potatoes wallow in their sloth, one slurping from a forty, the other puffing on a Fanta-bottle bong, until they are interrupted by the Aussie ex-girlfriend of their absent host. After she leaves, the two parse the differences between Australia and Austria, then declare that her accent was clearly British. Lacking sympathetic characters or comedic timing, the piece falls flat, but Leonard's dig at American ignorance is well taken.
Palestinian American playwright Betty Shamieh tackles another type of ignorance in her one-man play Ease, which recounts the tale of an Outback trek that goes awry, mainly because its leaders lack knowledge of their surroundings. It's a dramatic setup, and Shamieh's protagonist hints at a more complex story, but the monologue remains disappointingly cryptic to the end.
The most interesting tidbit comes from Beau Willimon's I Am Ned Kelly, which combines intentionally inept rapping with the story of Ned Kelly, a 19th-century Australian fugitive who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and who, of course, most Americans have never heard of. It's fascinating material; if only Willimon didn't turn it so abruptly into a musical number featuring Kelly-style tin-pan armor and inexplicable air guitars.
Luckily, I Am Ned Kelly gives way to Brett Neveu's Ethnic Cleansing Day, the dramatic high point of the evening. An American teenager has returned, it seems, from running away to Australia. Father asks son about his trip in short, fraught sentences; the pauses between words tell the entire story, which takes on an eerier twist when it becomes apparent that the son has participated in a disturbingly violent act while away. Stewart J. Zully as father and Mark Thornton as son turn in thoughtful performances, and the piece is spare and intriguing.
It also has little to do with Australia—which may be the point. While its dramatic success varies, The Australia Project does succeed in showing American audiences just how little we contemplate Australia and, in forcing us to do so for an evening, places an often tangential relationship centerstage.