You Got Older by US playwright and actor Clare Barron makes its Australian Premiere at Red Stitch. In a depressed moment, lead character Mae issues a lament along the lines of “I feel like every blowjob I give gets me closer to death.” If you substitute “sitting through productions of mediocre new plays” for “blowjob” – I fully sympathise with the sentiment.
A lot has happened recently for Mae (Emily Goddard, The Boy at the Edge of Everything, Glory Dazed). Dumped by her boyfriend/boss, she’s abruptly found herself deprived of a city lawyer’s status and a romantic relationship. Now she’s back at her somewhat remote childhood home to look after her widower father (Francis Greenslade, The Madwoman of Chaillot, the ABC’s Mad As Hell) who’s on leave from work and undergoing cancer treatment.
The production started well enough. As Dad shared his new interest in gardening with Mae, Greenslade and Goddard evoked the awkwardness of adult offspring who don’t have all that much to say to their parents. Her thoughtful crunching of one of Dad’s capsicums to fill the silence showed a delicacy we would hardly revisit in this production.
You Got Older was billed as a black comedy, and sections of the opening night audience had some laughs. A number of us didn’t though, and I think this is due to the play’s lack of sophistication and ambition. It’s not nearly dark enough for an enthusiast of the genre, and a lot of the attempted humour doesn’t aim much higher than the “gross-out” variety, such as when Mae describes a rash to Mac (Lee Beckhurst) from her elementary school.
Other characters are introduced as Dad’s treatment proceeds. Around his bed, daughters Jenny (Eva Seymour, The Honey Bees), Hannah (Penny Harpham) and son Matthew (Mark Yeates, Proof) do their best with little opportunity.
We were told that Jenny had a girlfriend, a detail not touched again, which was particularly surprising given the finalé. The superficial treatment of the character reeks of outrageous tokenism. Similarly, the script teases us by giving Matthew some despair, but only as far as the glum admission “No one texts me” goes. And again, we’re pretty much done with character development after this throwaway line.
Harpham’s Hannah has a little more to do as she steers a conversation on how giving a sweater to a man curses the relationship. However, as this turns to a discussion of an ex-lover dying of cancer with Dad still in the room, precariously suspended disbelief snaps under the strain, chiming the “bullshit” alarm sonorously on the way through.
With all the talking over each other and rapid-fire exchanges filled with repetition, You Got Older fairly drowns in that perennial American indulgence of verbosity. (Mae would even rather than talk about herself than have sex, despite her professed horniness after a lengthy drought.)
Distracted from the world of the play, I pondered which of those hard-to-believe shows with noisy families this was. You know, the ones designed to push the big, juicy emotional buttons of relatable family crises in familiar ways. Brothers and Sisters might be the best fit. This play seemed like a pilot of a new series that aimed to lightly introduce a raft of characters and show the ups and downs of family life without straying too far from that mainstream formula.
Director Brett Cousins had an opportunity to steer the play off the beaten track through an exploration of Mae’s hidden and frustrated desires. The device for this was a black-hatted cowboy (Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Jurassica, Middletown), a sometime visitor to Mae as she pottered around the family home.
Unlike other roles for Red Stitch, Fraser-Trumble is just adequate here. He wasn’t menacing enough to be a convincing bad-boy given the fantasies Mae shared with us. Further, opportunity for humour was underdeveloped as Mae attempted to heat up her imaginary cowboy. She also had a reticence in her private life unsuited to her words in public. As such, the pull quote from Time Out New York, “A weird, funny character comedy, with detours into gnarly and frustrated horniness”, didn’t reflect my experience.
Although featuring in more scenes than others, Greenslade didn’t get a lot to work with either. When not a patient, the main chance he had to establish Dad’s character was as someone who likes to give advice and doesn’t like disagreements. In a scene where Dad was obliged by family to bang an end-of-treatment gong prematurely for a photo, Greenslade struck excessively and with growing vigour, giving us a peek into Dad’s frustrations. As for the other supporting characters, this insight was frustratingly abandoned.
Goddard’s performance brought fleeting moments of authenticity to the production. Mae’s not-quite-right hair coupled with costume design from Matilda Woodroofe gave her a gently dishevelled look well suited to scenes where Goddard seemed to be just barely holding together in her carer role.
I wasn’t driven to care much about what I was watching in You Got Older. It was a much less satisfactory experience than Red Stitch’s roughly Australian equivalent Jurassica, almost a year ago. I’m sure I’m not the only one concerned about the health of the company given an abundance of recent unflattering reviews. We might hope that when it comes to selecting a course of scripts for next season, the company will seek a second opinion.
Director: Brett Cousins Featuring: Eva Seymour, Lee Beckhurst, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Emily Goddard, Francis Greenslade, Penny Harpham, Mark Yeates Set: Sophie Woodward Costume: Matilda Woodroofe Lighting: Clare Springett Sound: Daniel Nixon & Chris Wenn Assistant Director: Joanne Booth Stage Manager: Hannah Bullen Assistant Stage Manager: Anthony Torouno
You Got Older
Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, St. Kilda
Performance: Saturday 3 September 2016 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 2 October 2016
Information and Bookings: www.redstitch.net
Image: Emily Goddard and Jordan Fraser-Trumble in You Got Older – photo by Jodie Hutchison
Review: Jason Whyte