We begin with a young woman, Felicity (Ainslie McGlynn), writhing out of bed from beneath a stranger’s arms after a drunken night. Flustered and flailing about in the unfamiliar apartment, she frantically searches for her clothes and the exit, but is unable to leave once her lover wakes up. Zamir (Terry Karabelas) – who married Felicity during their drunken evening together – is charming at times, cheesy at others but mostly is threatening and aggressive. It is this quality that thwarts Felicity’s obvious solution of an annulment and fast-tracks the inevitable introduction to her parents.
It is from this point on that the play descends into the absurd and the uncomfortable. We meet the parents: the daffy mother Luella with a keen interest in theatre, played beautifully by Alice Livingstone, and the extremist father Leonard (Peter Astridge). Leonard should be the most radical nationalist of all nationalists, but a slight weakness in Astridge’s delivery, nanoseconds behind in timing is all it was, took the character from deadly to dotty, from extremist to simply eccentric. Consequently, those around him struggled to maintain their ridiculous characters without seeming out of place. The balance was thrown and a play that attempts to highlight problems with hyper-masculinity and extremist nationalist views is suddenly characterized by higher estrogen levels than testosterone levels. Not once did I question Leonard’s “butterfly collection”, although in retrospect it’s a worry that I didn’t make the connection between the room’s real function (a place for guns and secret government discussions) and the clever cover up of an entomology room. The torture of butterflies for the sake of studies is just another clever link lost and wasted on me.
It is simply not palatable for an audience to process the satire of the violence, governments, gender roles and the nuclear family in a sitcom genre with a Looney Tunes commentary.
The play’s main theme is clear – the danger of untested paranoia and the hyper-violence that pervades and is encouraged in our society. But to the play’s detriment, it is crowded by other worthy criticisms and gags that deviate from the theme.
Furthermore, Director Melita Rowston’s link between Durang’s criticism of torture in the “war on terror” and the Abbott government’s treatment of asylum seekers in the program’s director’s notes is a worthy but tenuous one. The play is overtly American, to the point where the audience is only able to receive one in four of the jokes because of the lack of context. Although the play features some very clever writing and interesting internal associations, the audience is not privy to much of it because it has been overshadowed by too many ideas.
Perhaps it is Durang’s intention to overcrowd the play, to show how Felicity’s life, very much based on the traditional American girl, is filled with absurdity and farcicality and we see this as her world spins out of control until she is left with no option but to travel back in time to change the future. But this absurdity should be deeply rooted in the characters that surround Felicity. Otherwise we are left with a confusing conglomeration of characters and comedy that just sort of misses the mark.
And then there’s the ending. The violence concludes and the play takes a turn for the watered-down, featuring a meta-theatrical return to previous scenes in order to prevent a wildly illogical pre-emptive missile strike. This plot twist comes too late, past the point of confrontation and disturbance, past the point of preventing any real harm. Perhaps its ending has a deeper function- that the ability to change people is far more fantastical than the violence that proceeds it. A happy ending is a theatrical trick. Durang establishes this world of violence and irrationality and then by deviating from it in the final scenes, he ultimately leaves the audience desensitised and dissatisfied. It’s like the ending of almost any sit-com (that this play tries to emulate). It slightly fizzles with disappointment because it had promised much more.
The play has good intentions, great moments and wonderful talent. It is cleverly written for the most part, and well performed too. But unfortunately, minor problems were more exposed in this play more so than they would have been in most others. These minor problems had a ripple effect that made it unstable and unsettled, unintentionally so.