Reginald Theatre, November 12
The deceased Alec Hobbes, scientist extraordinaire, looms over this play like the shadow of some giant bird of prey. During his life he stole the ideas of his brightest student, Hester, rewarded his wife Meridee’s loyalty with a loveless marriage, had a fling with her friend Lydia and enjoyed a decade long affair with her closer friend Judith. Judith says it was love. Meridee says Alec didn’t believe in love.
Instead he believed in mathematically created artificial life forms that mate, breed, compete and die. His work was so mind-boggling that his computer wasn’t switched off when he died: his ex-university still monitors the endless experiment.
In Nadia Tass’s new Griffin Theatre Company production of Alma De Groen’s brilliant 2002 play, we see what’s happening on Alec’s computer via video screens built into Tobhiyah Stone Feller’s set. These videos, created by sound designer Nate Edmondson, show tiny digital creatures zipping around a beehive-like environment. Were it a computer game, the point would be to kill them. Instead Alec has it set up so they exterminate each other. The irony of his own demise (when incapacitated by dementia) at Meridee’s hands is sublime.
It’s these touches that make the play so taut. Had Tom Stoppard written Wicked Sisters he’d have had Alec espouse his theories at length. De Groen, by contrast, has her characters cover swathes of moral and conceptual territory without recourse to monologues. The ideas are just slipped in among the gossip, jocularity, cattiness and confessions, like spiking already strong drinks.
Meridee (Vanessa Dowling) has wangled Judith (Hannah Waterman), Lydia (Deborah Galanos) and Hester (Di Adams) into meeting at her Blue Mountains home, with something between confrontation and retribution in mind. The play traps them in her late husband’s study in real time: 85 minutes to unravel lifelong friendships. Alec would have thought it a cracking experiment.
De Groen neatly defines the four by their attitude to money: for the hermit-like Meridee it’s security, for PR high-flier Judith, freedom, and for real estate agent Lydia, fun. For Hester, meanwhile, whose science career Alec flushed down the toilet, and who now cleans motel rooms, it’s a means to save a sick friend. Similarly, although shared humour is a bond between Meridee, Judith and Lydia, Hester is a darker horse.
Waterman is exceptional at squeezing all the juice from the self-satisfied Judith, while keeping her sympathetic. The latter point is crucial, because De Groen does not judge her characters, even if they sit in furious judgement upon each other. Despite playing the least complex character, Galanos ensures Lydia’s stridency is tempered with genuine vivacity, and so we care for her rather than sharing Hester’s disdain. Meridee is the most complex, and Downing creates an intriguing, if not always compelling, version of this woman who can be loyal, yet commit murder, be kind-hearted, yet become a self-confessed shrew in the late stages of caring for Alec, and be honourable, yet knowingly turn a blind eye to her husband’s theft of Hester’s ideas.
Adams’ Hester is more problematic. The brightest of the four, Hester shouldn’t necessarily be the driest. She might be unimpressed by Judith and Lydia’s careers and lifestyles, and she might feel betrayed by Meridee, but there should also be a warmth to her. She could be more eccentric; less acerbic. If Tass and Adams can engineer a slight tweak in this depiction, these absorbing women will sit in better balance with each other.
Until December 12.