A Simple Act of Kindness

RSAT-Khisraw-Jones-Shukoor-and-Sarah-Sutherland-in-A-Simple-Act-of-Kindness-photo-by-Jodie-HutchinsonIt’s early on in Ross Mueller’s newest play, A Simple Act of Kindness, when the show’s lead character, Sophia, turns to the audience and declares: ‘This is a funny story’. And she’s right, unsurprisingly.

Mueller’s 110-minute deep-dive into the Australian housing market is one of the award-winning playwright’s rare straight comedies. Negative gearing, high interest rates and family resentments all play out with a tongue firmly lodged in each cheek.

Hot button issues are mercifully peppered by a near-constant stream of uproarious one-liners, slap stick sequences and well-choreographed comedic beats. Aided by well-honed performances from Red Stitch Theatre’s best, it is a show with a certain chaotic charm to it. And while its humour buckles under the weight of any attempt at sincerity or conceptual heft, as well as a meandering first act, its levity is palatable and its joyfulness infectious.

‘It’s got good bones’, Sophia (Lou Wall) observes, holding the end of a measuring tape in a bare apartment. On the other end is her father (Joe Petruzzi), inspecting floorboards and knocking on walls. Together they are playing out an increasingly familiar scenario for Australia’s first home buyer. To crack into Melbourne’s housing market, Law school dropout Sophia must appeal to her father for help.

Her father, an ageing yuppie with a place in Carlton, promises to match her deposit dollar-for-dollar. It’s a gift, of sorts, though Sophia pays for it in unsolicited advice, thinly veiled generational resentments and helicopter parenting. To secure her father’s help, Sophia pretends to be engaged to her platonic friend, Greg (Khisraw Jones-Shukoor). It works, at least initially. But even the best game of Monopoly begins calmly.

The show’s first act follows Sophia as she tries to maintain this lie, all the while fielding a litany of chaotic attempts from her parents to help – or patronize – her. Her mother (Sarah Sutherland) is an aspiring Melbourne Housewife with dreams of becoming a maverick independent with the slogan ‘Strap On Stoddington’.

As a structural issue in the apartment becomes more pressing – Stage Design by Jacob Battista makes expert use of the limitations of the theatre – pressure begins to build amongst this eclectic family. But what is missing from their increasing conflict is clarity.

Key details of character and plot are either missing or lost in a crowded script. Why exactly does Sophia pretend to quit her job? Why must she pretend to be married? These are important questions for the plot that are only superficially justified. Dramatic turns in plot or developments in character are often lost somewhere behind rapid one-liners and extraneous details.

Act One is particularly unfocused, moving far too quickly through segues and struggling to orient itself around any central driving force with any consistency. Character arcs, too, fall by the wayside. A glib mention of Sophia’s inability to say ‘thank you’ becomes a repeated refrain. While it seems important to the script, it appears in scenes out of nowhere and with little long-term effects on her characterisation.

Part of the reason for the apparent thinness of the show’s character arcs is its overwrought asides. For Sophia, cursory references to a 6-month period she spent in rehabilitation for depression, her work with asylum seekers, or her Millennial anachronisms crowd the script. There are many examples throughout the play of seemingly extraneous details whose function is difficult to understand.

The father recounts his childhood abuse, describes the talents of Wayne Rooney and is given a monologue to describe the allure of an Elton John tribute band. It’s a litany of details that move from the serious to the superficial with little perceivable difference between the two.

The result is that details which may have strengthened the show’s storyline – the recounting of a nightmare renovation of a mudhouse in Gippsland, for example, deepens the mother’s characterisation – are lost in the fray.

It rests on the cast to make this fast-moving script appear cohesive. The charismatic Wall, known for their one-person show Bleep Bloop, finds ever more innovative ways to vary their delivery and so create a character we want to follow. As a guest artist among Red Stitch’s usual members, they integrate seamlessly into the cast. Petruzzi is another highlight, boasting an easy earnestness that grounds every comedic beat in a magnetic likeability.

Sutherland offers her best iteration of a ‘Pru and Tru’ from Kath & Kim accent. Her talents for physical comedy, on display most obviously in Act Two, provide many of the show’s best moments of slapstick. Jones-Shukoor’s character, meanwhile, is so clearly underwritten that their ability to give even a fleeting impression of complex characterisation must be applauded.

The show’s second act, in highlighting the enforced confines of a COVID lockdown, is more cohesive. Stuck breathing down each other’s necks, the family take turns infantilising each other before their daily coffee run. An absurdly hilarious true crime sequence shows Mueller at his most playful and offers one of the show’s most genuinely hilarious moments.

Peter Houghton’s direction shines here too, with the notoriously tight space of Red Stitch used expertly to sharpen slap-stick sequences and evoke the claustrophobia of lockdown existence without becoming stale.

In the wake of the absurdly farcical turns made in Act Two, one is left wondering if the show would be better served leaning into its absurdity or channeling its chaos into a more cohesive kitchen-sink drama.

As it stands, the ending of A Simple Act of Kindness attempts to strike a sincere note of familial reconciliation that lands like a lead balloon after so many tonal shifts and overwrought character arcs.

All the same, there are ‘good bones’ peppered throughout this easily lovable show, even if there are cracks in a few of them.

A Simple Act of Kindness
Red Stitch Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, St Kilda East
Performance: Wednesday 30 November 2022
Season continues to 18 December 2022
Information and Bookings: www.redstitch.net

Image: Khisraw Jones-Shukoor and Sarah Sutherland in A Simple Act of Kindness – photo by Jodie Hutchinson

Review: Guy Webster