Without giving too much away, it’s about twenty minutes into David Williamson’s new play, that you realise what you thought was going to be a rather rollicking 30 something rom-com. is actually becoming a lot more complicated.
Alice, the unlucky in love character played by Lisa Gormley, could almost be an Aussie Bridget Jones, even speaking directly to the audience. Williamson employs the device artfully works to keep the audience in the loop and the play moving along nicely.
The love interest, Ryan is your typically awkward scientist, a la Sheldon Cooper - smart but socially inept. Justin Stewart Cotta plays the role in low gear to begin with. His character is obviously a little different but not enough to sound the alarm bells.
Anyone who has ever seen David Williamson’s work knows he is a master of social commentary, that’s pretty much a given. Look at his long list of credits, over 45 plays and counting. The Club, Don's Party, The Removalists and Travelling North not only reflect but are embedded into the fabric of Australian culture.
What is supremely evident in this new play is his ability to provide us with a snapshot of the extraordinary, in this case the debilitated life of an individual sitting somewhere on the autism spectrum, and throwing it back to the audience in a palatable balance of comedy and drama. Autism not funny, you say? Probably not, but Williamson knows that even the worst situations can be made easier with a bit of humour and Odd Man Out reflects that spirit.
So twenty odd minutes in and despite the fact that the audience is cracking up, there’s a sense that the wheels are about to fall off Alice and Ryan’s mundane relationship. The growing conflict between the two main characters is aided and abetted by their relationships with those closest to them.
Director Mark Kilmurry keeps the spotlight firmly on the main characters. A sparsely decorated set reinforces the centrality of Ryan and Alice and it’s a credit to the six actors involved that they carry it off without slowing the pace. The cast is small and compact and each of the actors delivers a strong performance. The fact that Ryan’s social inadequacy is more than just idiosyncratic and is actually the result of autism is revealed in a series of vignettes of his encounter with the other characters punctuated with Alice’s narrative which keeps the play moving along nicely.
In addition to Gormley and Stewart Cotta in the lead roles, the accomplished Gael Ballantyne doubles as Emily and Polly, Alice’s mother and mother in law from hell, Rachel Gordon plays best friend Carla, Matt Minto is Evan/Neville and Bill Young is Gary (Alice's father) and the police officer. Each character is used as a minor catalyst in the unravelling of the complex character that is Ryan.
Justin Stewart Cotta’s interpretation of this character is impressive. Ryan’s autism manifests in social incompetence – he has no kill switch when it comes to the painful truth. He gets angry and he gets excited in equal parts and Stewart Cotta ramps up the physicality and vocal delivery accordingly while maintaining the deadpan expression of a person who has trouble responding to everyday emotional cues – a tough gig for any actor. As the play progresses the audience feels like they’re getting a completely believable portrait of the difficulties someone with this condition experiences.
Lisa Gormely’s Alice is at times annoyingly positive but her ability to switch between narrator and protagonist is impressive and by the end of the play she has the audience’s sympathy.
Williamson’s ability to challenge the norm and to focus on the positive is also evident in Alice’s relationship with best friend Carla, played by Gordon with great comic timing in a script containing a hefty dose of dry wit. It is Ryan that ultimately outs her for what she is, despite his lack of incite.
Odd Man Out is at times hilarious. It’s also confronting. Living with autism is no joke but Williamson develops his characters in a way that makes this play a pleasure to watch but he also injects a hefty dose of social realism that leaves the audience thinking. Sure, it may be his trade mark MO but it sure makes for a pleasurable theatrical experience.
Odd Man Out is playing in its debut run at Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, until Saturday March 18th. Production photos by Clare Hawley.