By Matthew Ryan
“I’m a therapist, and I’m here to help you.”
If you believe that, you can believe that Jerry can manage without Tom, that paper umbrellas will drop from the sky, that love wears a green polka-dot skirt, that your self-help tape starts ringing your mobile, and that an office desk can take a dislike to you and chase you around the room.
All these things happen to Jeremiah Daniels, except perhaps the first, for when his whiz-bang mentor in the nameless advertising agency drowns himself, the old team of Tom and Jerry is no more, and Jerry’s choice is whether to go for Tom’s old job, or follow his newly-awakening conscience and chuck it all in.
For Tom begins to recognise that, like the advertisements he creates, he is a message without a product, a construct designed to create a void and then fill it, a super-efficient player in a game that isn’t worth the effort.
If this play is starting to sound like David Mamet on a bad day, or Death of a Salesman meets Samuel Beckett, relax, for it isn’t the existential desert it might seem from that description. It combines the Absurdist techniques of Ionesco with the comic brilliance of the Monty Python team, with the underlying satisfaction of some recognisable truth.
It is one of the funniest Australian plays to hit our stage in many years, a bizarre piece of surrealist comedy with side-splitting physical components, and the only time it begins to sag is in the second half, where realism creeps in for a few stodgy minutes and we begin to care about these people as human beings, rather than as characters in a morality play.
Because I think that’s what it really is, a mediaeval treatise on the emptiness of society with the added edge of post-modern hysteria, and it works not just because of the text, but because Sean Mee allows his five actors to be caricatures whose truth can be seen precisely because they aren’t realistic.
If that’s starting to sound a little heavy, let’s look at the plot. Jerry (Hayden Spencer is at last adding a dimension of angst to his natural comic genius) and his partner and rival (Iain Gardiner as the sleazy, back-stabbing go-getting advertising man is so true to type that it’s frightening) see a note in their dead boss’s diary which says “Moby Dick, Friday”.
Assuming that this means a meeting with a big client, for Tom always referred to his clients as fish, they realise they have to come up with an advertising campaign which will impress the Big Boys upstairs – and the one whose idea is best will automatically get Tom’s job. The only trouble is that they don’t know who the client is, nor even the product they have to sell. This is where the playwright’s ear serves him well, for the meaningless jargon is as good a collection of mumbo-jumbo as you could ever hope to hear.
Unwittingly, a junior staff member is present when they plan their empty campaign, and they have to let her in on it. Neridah Waters plays Kathy, wide-eyed with love for Jerry, but having to worship him from afar, a classic send-up of the star-struck office junior. The audience loved her, with her dowdy clothes (think lime-green tights under a pale blue skirt in Princess Margaret tartan) and big seventies black-framed specs, and when she finally gets her reward (for this is one show with a very satisfying happy ending), they cheered with delight.
But there’s more to the tangled web than this ill-assorted trio. Jerry is married to the ultra-chic Beth, who supports but doesn’t understand him, and when he meets a kooky girl at the bus stop in green polka-dots (both women played with great panache by Georgina Symes), trying to work out the meaning of Moby Dick , part of his dilemma, and ours, is to separate the reality from the fantasy – are they both real, or both imaginary?
In fact, what is real? Is it the super-salesman self-help guru-therapist, played with wicked exuberance by Danny Murphy with hair; or his alter-ego, Danny Murphy sans hair and ego, the failed therapist who relies on Jerry to help him?
It won’t all be made clear, but you’ll have a wonderful time trying to work it out, especially when Hayden Spencer gets up to more of his insane antics which include fighting off the attacking office desk with a lead pencil, and strangling the ventriloquist’s doll that is taking over his personality.
The illusory nature of the script is echoed in the tricky little set by Jonathan Oxlade, two tiny dolls house constructions on one side of the stage representing the office block and Beth and Jerry’s story-book happy home in the suburbs, and the huge real-size office space where desks take on personalities of their own, and paper umbrellas fall irrationally to the floor. Combine this with Jo Currey’s clever lighting, and a haunting sound track from Tyrone Noonan, and you have an evening of wit, elegance and sheer delight.
It’s a long time since I’ve seen a new Australian play this good, in a production that shows La Boite is keeping up its image as the ground-breaker for modern Australian drama. Don’t miss it.
Directed by Sean Mee
Playing Tuesday–Saturday until 5 November 2005 at 8pm. (Tuesdays at 6.30pm, matinee 5 November at 2pm) Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes, no interval