Wild East is a play that doesn't quite know what it wants to be: a nuanced comedy about corporate culture, a chamber drama about personal betrayal, or a riotous, slapdash cartoon. A better play would have been all three at once, but this production, while never particularly unlikeable, lacks the necessary sense of internal coherency required to pull it off. Though at times it works well, it never works brilliantly, and sometimes, unfortunately, not much at all.
Written by British playwright April De Angelis and directed by Lucy Freeman, the piece is essentially a bourgeois chamber comedy transposed into a modern setting: the job interview. (In this sense the audience can be forgiven for thinking that they've rocked up to a taping on Thank God You're Here.) A twitchy young applicant, Frank (Martin Sharpe), is going for a position at a prolific advertising agency that specialise in selling yogurt to the Russians. His interviewers, Dr Gray (Marchella Russo) and Dr Pitt (Verity Charlton) as different from each other as chalk and cheese: the former, a snappily-dressed professional who thinks in dot points and speaks in weasel words, is cool, calm and collected – the very image of corporate iciness; the latter, who dresses in flowing beiges and browns and sports a sling and several bandages on her arms, is far more emotionally unhinged. It becomes increasingly apparent as the play goes on that the two doctors are not only workmates, but also former lovers, whose relationship ended on very bad terms and who are now trying to save their jobs in the face of upcoming layoffs. The interview – which is being recorded by the doctors' superiors – slowly but surely becomes the site of a psychological battle – initially between the two doctors, who wish to destroy and discredit the other, and eventually between the doctors and Frank, who thinks it's all part of the selection process.
The acting, which is one of the more impressive aspects of the production, is gloriously overstated and cartoonish. Martin Sharpe's Frank is a stuttering mess – a borderline autistic who touches the side of his head when he speaks too fast and who closes his eyes when he's concentrating. After he says the wrong thing one too many times, he asks if he can start the interview again. With hair slightly ruffled, there's a charming childish quality to Sharpe's performance, though it is not without trace elements of threat – it's to the detriment of the production that these elements are never really explored more fully. Marcella Russo, best known for her continuing role on Neighbours, is the most naturalistic and understated of the performers. Her Dr Gray, with her sharp sidewards glances at the omnipresent camera in the corner, is sufficiently cool and calculating. At the opposite extreme, Verity Charlton plays Dr Pitt as a strung-out whirling dervish, whose forced, toothy smiles and beady-eyed intensity provides the production with its one true element of threat. Her performance comes on a little strong in the opening scenes, when it merely seems brash and overwrought, though this is soon explained in narrative terms and is nonetheless very funny.
The writing is good, but not great. De Angelis' sometimes caustic dialogue, which is far and away her strongest suit, has a rhythm and flow that really works for it and is terribly easy to listen to. Somewhat less impressive, however, is her casting of Russia as the West's barbaric 'Other'. While corporate barbarism is unarguably the target of the play's harshest criticisms, her depiction of Russia as a place of illiterate peasants, prostitutes, abusive men, and idiot consumers who can be convinced to buy foreign-owned yogurt if its endorsed by a Russian-looking cartoon bear, is highly questionable.
The production's biggest problem, however, has something to do with its modulation of tone: its not so much that the transitions between moods is the play's problem – sometimes tonal juxtaposition is a good thing – but rather that the various moods don't coalesce into anything greater than the sum of its parts. The play's best scenes are those in which everyone seems to be talking at once about all manner of patently ludicrous things – most of which show up the marketing profession as the emotionally hollow and manipulative trade that it is – in that wonderfully verbose way that only characters in plays and movies seem capable of. The problem is that these scenes don't seem to fit – not thematically, not formally, not dramatically – with those in which the two interviewers discuss their relationship with one another, or, more problematically still, those in which Dr Pitt describes her assault in a Russian hotel room. In particular, the scenes in which Dr Pitt suffers compulsive, near-epileptic fits seem almost completely at odds with the tone and shape of the rest of the production. They are notable, not for their dramatic force, but rather for the fact that, surrounded on all sides by scenes that don't in any way work to make sense of them tonally or otherwise, they lack any such force at all.
There are some interesting ideas here, but it ultimately feels like we're watching two or three different plays with completely different thematic concerns, all spliced together schizophrenically in the hope that the pieces will magically fit. Given the production's very real charms, it comes as a bit of a shame when they don't.
Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
by April De Angelis
Red Stitch Actors Theatre | Rear 2 Chapel St, St Kilda (opp Astor)
Friday 1 – 30 June
Wed – Sat 8pm, Sun 6.30pm