Katharine Cullen, Damian de Montemas, Caroline Craig and Ben Mortley in BETWEEN US 0210

Generally, we down under have no little or no trouble understanding, relating to, or absorbing North American film, theatre or other culture. Hardly surprising, given the length, breadth and depth of US cultural imperialism. We, apparently, find series like Sex In The City ‘awesome!’ Yet, while Joe Hortua’s 2004 play, Between Us, reveals there are obstacles between us.

It wouldn’t matter to those who didn’t see it, but the set is a rejig of Ensemble’s last offering, The God Committee. Given the hardcore subscribers that populate the Ensemble, chances are quite a few will pick up on this. Personally, I think it’s a bit, or a lot, of an insult. What was a reasonably elegant corporate setting for ‘God’ is merely passable here, as the spacious midwestern living-room of Sharyl and Joel. As the picture-window has been retained as a focal point, the view has changed. But are we seriously expected to suspend disbelief, when presented with a blown-up photo (and a pretty poor one at that) affixed behind an all-too-reflective perspex sheet? It got me off on the wrong foot and I never regained my balance, mainly because, just like snippets of conversation I overheard at interval, ‘I’m not very interested in these characters’.

Sharyl (Caroline Craig) and Joel (Damian de Montemas) are going through a rough patch. A very rough patch. Joel hates his job as an advertising photographer, even if it pays well. He’s an alcoholic; clearly symptomatic of angst over his rocky marriage, doubts about fatherhood, feelings he’s failed his talent and who knows what else. Carlo (Ben Mortley) went to college with Joel. They’re old friends and, underneath that, old rivals. Carlo’s been true to his talent, which has been recognised and, in the first act, he’s poised to really break through as a fine art photographer. his smugness is barely concealed; Joel’s discomfiting admixture of envy and admiration even harder to hide. Carlo and Grace (Katharine Cullen), while harbouring some insecurities of their own, are very much in love and contemplating parenthood. While visiting their friends who’ve just moved to a place in the middle of nowhere, where the people are good (Joel contends people are held to be ‘good’ only in places that have nothing else to offer). Carlo and Grace, staying with Sharyl and Joel, are entrapped witnesses to terrible confessions and conflict between them. Glass and illusions are smashed.

While the script and characters are by no means devoid of touchpoints, the emotional dots somehow fail to be joined, notwithstanding valiant efforts by a clutch of very fine actors. My feeling is that director, Jennifer Don, in setting her sights on ┬áhaving us unwittingly hold our breath as intrapersonal tensions are outed and escalated to high drama, has been failed by the script, which falls short of being convincing at this fever-pitched level. The actors don’t really look convinced either. There’s something a little too contrived and secondhand about Hortua’s writing; it seems somewhat removed from the experiential. This is more of a nod in the direction of poignancy (a word he appropriates, to dubious effect) and pathos than the real thing.

The second act reverses the fortunes of the couples of somewhat, which seems just a bit too slick and, even if original (doubtful), not all that clever. There’s too much emphasis on a pseudo-political discussion about tipping the delivery man and, even if the play has a legitimate conscience, it doesn’t have the heart to carry it.

This is another play I really wanted and tried to like, if only for the sake of this production and the people involved. I felt almost duty-bound. I might well be the odd one out in feeling it lacks sincerity and authenticity; ‘though not if the comments over coffee my radar picked-up were anything to go by. What would’ve given the play its best chance is to adapt it to Australian accents, vernacular and places. More work, but it might have just been worth the effort. The way it is, I fear it wasn’t. And isn’t.

Damian de Montemas, Ben Mortley, Katharine Cullen and Caroline Craig in BETWEEN US 9862

Curtain Call rating: C-

The details: Between Us plays the Ensemble Theatre until September 11. Tickets on the company website.

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