Subject matter isn't one of the generally accepted elements of drama (such as plot, character, theme, and dialogue) that we've ticked off on our fingers since classical times -- maybe because every play has it, and excellence doesn't really depend on exactly what it is. But it is an attribute that helps identify a show and make it easy to get worked up about, if that's your thing: e.g., the pregnant nun show, the draft-dodging hippie show, the nude horse-blinding show.
Karin Diann Williams' Australia , currently at Space 55, is "about" teenagers in what appear to be traditional, inexorable, downward spirals -- young people who never finish what they start, whether it's high school, a stint in the Marines, a robbery, a murder, a marriage, a baby, or even a cigarette. But what keeps it from being just another dismal "kids with problems" play is tongue-in-cheek comedy of several flavors, from the dark to the absurd to the bravely character-based.
The fumbling but hopeful antics of Val, Mary Helen, Mark, Armando, and Tracy (and her aphasic, paraplegic father) are framed by the mandated encounters of a multiphobic and haplessly suicidal Living Skills teacher and a fascinatingly unethical and aggressive therapist -- oddly, the first of two wacky mental-health-provider characters whom Curtains gets to share with you this week.
Wherever it is these people live, it's a place where an attractive girl can manipulate people into believing she's going to be killed for owing $700 to coke dealers, shrinks charge $75 an hour, and the smartest of the kids (which isn't saying much) will accept one dollar for showing a serviceman where the pot dealer is. It's no wonder everyone talks about hightailing it to Australia, an exotic, far-off repository of everything they wish were different.
And that's only one thing the script has in common with Chekhov's The Three Sisters, which I didn't think about until afterwards. The parallels provide additional layers of both enjoyment and significance.
Duane Daniels (who also directed last fall's Munched) seems to have a bit more trouble corralling this larger cast, especially in an Act II scene, set in a diner, in which nearly all of them are on stage; the pacing and cues felt loose and unintentional. I saw it on the second night of the run, so it's possible they've imposed more structure by now. On the plus side, the cast kept the energy high and the action moving right along, despite the mess.
As individuals, the performers are distinct and fascinating. Downtown fixture and sometime New Times contributor Leslie Barton appears in one of her first "real" plays, and she does a fine job modulating her character's baseline hysteria (for want of a better word) with moments of ferocity and dry humor. Jenny Strickland, as Tracy, looks uncannily like a younger Barton and expertly maintains her character's shell of hedonistic anomie. And actors Michael Thompson (the captivating Lady in a Leotard from MilkMilkLemonade) and BC Verhoeven are completely different in every play I see each of them in, which is always impressive.
Williams' writing vacillates between the colloquial and the bizarre while setting up symmetries that pay off in satisfying ways. Though the production's set design and "special effects" were somewhat unconvincing and sometimes confusing, Daniels' fluid staging and the cast's tireless commitment generally made up for those and other minor weak spots in a show that, as my companion mused, grows on you.
Australia continues through Saturday, May 5, at 636 East Pierce Street, Get tickets, $10 and $15, at the door, or order Space 55 tickets online.