Odd Man Out
Noosa Long Weekend
In Association With Ensemble Theatre
The J Theatre, Noosa
March 23 – 25 2017
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
David Williamson’s Odd Man Out sold out in Sydney over an eight-week season. Secure in the knowledge that it would be another smash hit for Williamson and Ensemble Theatre, Noosa Long Weekend invited the company to bring the production to The J for an exclusive pre-festival fundraising weekend (4 performances only), launching the rebrand of the festival only weeks prior.
Noosa Long Weekend Festival is now Noosa Alive! presenting an exciting program of world class events over 10 days in July.
Williamson’s success is unparalleled in this country. His work not only reflects the many aspects of our individual lives and the broader societal values to which we subscribe but also, it brings to light the little details of our relationships, our connections with other humans. Always funny, always touching, always extremely intelligent, examining all the things we think we should be getting right and all the things we know are not right with the world, Williamson is a master of making misfortune a gift. We see his characters expand and grow in the advent of disaster rather than be defeated by life’s difficulties.
While Anna Gardiner’s design (lit by Christopher Page) is contemporary and suitably symbolic, at times it feels almost too sterile, which is perhaps the point: it suits every scene and our focus remains on the performers. Alistair Wallace’s soundscape adds an interesting dimension, most effectively incorporated into the second act to up the pace and underpin the absurd comedy act required of Ryan in each new social situation.
When a production is mediocre we don’t take much away from it (except perhaps a thought that we’ll not see that company again for a while, just while they work themselves out!). But when the actors excel in bringing a terrific, insightful script to life, we experience a degree of what the characters on stage are going through. This shared empathy is part of what makes live theatre so special, so vital, and how it’s possible to invest so much emotionally in what’s essentially a cute little love story. In the case of Odd Man Out, the story is much larger, and we feel more deeply than we expected to for Ryan, a high-functioning autistic physicist, and for Alice, a physiotherapist with a ticking biological clock; we quickly became complicit in her attempts to change Ryan, in a frustrating journey through life and love.
In creating Alice, Lisa Gormley has discovered something beautifully gentle and natural, and building on it gradually, layer by layer, she develops incredible strength and purpose so that we understand completely by the end of the play, her unfailing love for Ryan and her determination to support him, in spite of the challenges he continuously throws at her. We see her undergoing the kind of transformation that can only come from a place of whole-hearted love and unwavering kindness. This role might be wasted on anyone else but Gormley gives Alice the necessary warmth and depth, and good natured sense of humour to enable us to believe in her crazy pursuit of happily ever after with a guy who seems incapable of understanding her needs, or communicating his own.
Williamson has said to me that Justin Stewart Cotta (Dream Homes’s memorable “Lion of Lebanon”) is one of our finest stage actors – high praise indeed; I’d seen the proof of it during our brief rehearsal period and limited run of that production, directed by the playwright, for Noosa Long Weekend Festival 2015 – and in Odd Man Out we see once again, Cotta’s knack for nailing a challenging character, bringing to this complex role a heartbreaking vulnerability that might remind you of Noah Taylor and/or Geoffrey Rush in Shine, and well-studied idiosyncrasies, which are likened in the play to Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Rainman. And in this moment, Williamson very succinctly makes a point about our lack of references in the mainstream, since the release of Rainman, to Autism Spectrum Disorder. In recent years we’ve seen a bit of a run on bipolar and depression and dementia in the movies, however; unlike sitting in a cinema and feeling somewhat removed from the situation, when we’re just metres away from the humans having to find a way to live with a mental illness or developmental condition in a world that doesn’t offer much assistance, we can’t help but feel for them, and wonder how, given the same set of circumstances, we might behave.
Ryan is hyper-intelligent but emotionally stunted and socially anxious, and innocently offends everyone with whom he comes into contact, including Alice, his sharp wit and honest observations providing the play’s funniest and most uncomfortable moments. An awkward and highly entertaining scene involving good friends and wine (or is that friends and good wine?) puts the approach to the test with hilarious results. But without support from her parents or friends (that gorgeous Rachel Gordon as best friend Carla, let’s face it, is far more bitch than BFF), Alice has had to find a way to teach Ryan a new way to present himself to the world. The consequences are disastrous, giving us a mother of a monologue from Cotta, just in case we weren’t already convinced of his utter conviction in the role. These two bare their souls and connect with such genuine honesty and intimacy that we can’t help but be moved. A friend told me after the show that for him, in Ryan and Alice he saw his parents’ relationship, Autism included. And he could see he was the child, whom Ryan and Alice can’t quite agree to have…until we find ourselves at the neat, optimistic ending (there’s no spoiler there if you’re familiar with Williamson’s unashamedly, cleverly crowd-pleasing style). Look, there may have been a few tears shed.
Gordon, Gael Ballantyne, Bill Young, and Matt Minto beautifully flesh out the secondary characters, but this show rightly belongs to the effervescent Gormley, and to Cotta, in his most honest, detailed and nuanced work to date.