Married and bored? Go Watch Mayer’s Couples!

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By Kanika Sood

It’s showtime at the National Theatre but the curtains won’t go up. A confused audience is led through a chink in the velvet to chairs parked bang on the stage.

Philip A Mayer’s Couples comes to Melbourne rattling 13 awards. It tells the story of four city-based couples attempting to save their marriages at a couples retreat. The couples represent a diverse set: a bossy lawyer woman and her mousey writer husband (the Williams), a tradie and his librarian wife (the Duncans), a young Fitzroy hipster and her salesman husband (the Bensteds), and a business man and his much younger trophy wife (the Parnells). The retreat’s counselors, Drs. Baily are seething in marital hell fire themselves, unbeknown to other couples.

Some jokes start predicatively but injected with the actors’ skill, trigger full-throttle laughter. A few are the kind that middle-aged couples with boring lives probably tell each other after a few drinks. The latter kind gets good mileage from the grey-haired couples – of which there are many in the audience. The comedy also packs in a few punches (the physical kind) and slaps. These arrive unexpectedly, sandwiched between laughs and succeed at creating tension in the audience.

The rather intimate seating works to the advantage of the one-act play. When a couple talks in private on the stage, you feel like you are watching through a keyhole or listening at a door. To change the scenes, the stage is plunged in darkness, all actors freeze, and dramatic music plays. The last is perhaps the ‘musical’ element of the comedy. The method is effective but sometimes the characters look a little silly like the Dr. Bailey turned sideways with his mouth half open and finger pointing at something.

Lucas Thomas as Gary Duncan, the sleazy tradie, delivers the comedy’s winning performance. He says the darndest things, gets into fights and acts at all levels of inappropriateness. Thomas has filled out Gary’s character with several tiny details. So Gary glances around with his lip pushed out, vacuously scratches his arms and inspects his elbows in between his dialogues. The result is a character so wholesome and convincing that when the cast came out for their curtain call, several pairs of eyes probed Thomas, perhaps trying to separate him from Gary.

Many eyes also rested on Katie Lee who plays Rachel Williams, the power lawyer from Toorak. Rachel is the play’s enfant terrible; she butts into virtually everything that is said on the stage. Rachel doesn’t sugar coat, she explodes. So much that listening to her becomes a trade off between being interested and being annoyed at her shrill, jesting voice. Mayer nails it with the Williams. He shows the audience why a brash woman and a sensitive writer continue to be married and in love.

You may not be able to drag your partner to couples’ counseling but this is close. And the program is even printed like a real couples retreat brochure.

“Couples” is running from March 29th – April 2nd at The National Theatre, 20 Carlisle Street, St Kilda as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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