Georgie Parker and Glenn Hazeldine in RHINESTONE REX AND MISS MONICA  340a

Whatever prevailing snobbery makes him unfashionable, David Williamson is almost certainly the one name that springs to mind when one thinks ‘Australian playwright’. Noone can doubt his pioneering a path for other Australian playwrights to follow or, if not to follow, one which made it infinitely easier for those that came after to make their own way.

You probably will have picked up, on your radar, that Williamson recently had a bit of a spray at the Sydney Theatre Company and the theatre establishment per se, for no longer being amenable to staging his work. Seems he feels he’s been as unjustly and unreasonably and ironically marginalised, by dint of his elder status, as so much of our aging population is, in so many ways and contexts.

In principle, at least, I think he has a point. While I’d be among the first to plump for brave decisions, which give vent to edgy, new theatrical voices, age, as such, should be no determinant. Of course, the argument, to be cogent and authentic, means playwrights, young, old, or in-between, must be prepared to subject themselves to rigorous critical judgment and accept decisions which may or may not favour them. And by the same token, artistic directors must be prepared to be earnest and authentic in making their determinations. The problematic nexus lies in how to establish objectivity and demonstrate it. Mmm. Might leave that debate for another day.

While Williamson’s new play (it’s good to be able to actually see something new of his somewhere and surely he deserves and has earned it) is as fine a showcase for his craft as probably any he’s written, if not finer, and there’s (still) nothing wrong with an inconsequential romcom, I’m not sure it would’ve warranted an STC season, for example. It’s the sort of play that will likely come as ‘comfort food’ for an audience ageing with, or ahed of, DW. It’s not the sort of play that will deeply challenge or confront, or lead an audience into any uncomfortable territory. And that’s ok. But just ok.

Don’t get me wrong: again, the writing is deft and admirable, especially in the first act; after that, the narrative tends to peter out, the story following a so-predictable outcome as to be almost prosaic and redundant.

It would be churlish to observe Rhinestone Rex and Miss Monica are an unlikely couple: ‘Rex’, aka as Gary, the country music community radio dj, would-be Golden Guitar-winner and kitchen renovator contrasting and conflicting with the refined tastes of tendonitis-afflicted SSO violinist, Monica. Glenn Hazeldine is exceptionally well-cast by director Sandra Bates: actors don’t come any more convincingly blokier, or broadly Aussie.

The surprise package is Georgie Parker. If you’ve only glimpsed her on the Logies or in an excerpt from a soap, as I have, you would’ve had no prior idea of her versatility and range. She is quite the part as the stilted, stuck-up client. Indeed, her character inspires one of the best and sharpest lines in the play, when Gary, fancying himself as having penetrating insight into the rarefied realm of what women want, surmises that “just because the lake’s frozen doesn’t mean the ice is thick”.

Indeed, the dynamic between the two characters may be summed-up as a gradual thawing; of relations, and tastes.

One of the greatest strengths of the play, as staged, is the ingenious, tiered set design, by Clair Moloney, which enables us to see inside Monica’s apartment and, above, into the dingy studio and life of a community ‘boredcaster’.

While there’s some spirited, spiky sparring and repartee between the pair, Rhinestone ends up confirming Williamson as a gifted practitioner of his craft and not a whole lot more. It entertains us and there’s even the odd truly tender moment, although the last owes as much or more to skilful reading between the lines by the mostly excellent actors. I’m not sure a balding, compulsively lying, if charming-in-his-way carpenter is highly likely to make out with a slim, glamourous classical musician; then again, arguably stranger matches have been made.

I applaud the fact that, against odds he’s railed at, Williamson continues to work, but only time will tell if his interests will re-enter more contentious, policticised territory, as with his earlier and best outings. Notwithstanding a stumble or three, Bates, Hazeldine and Parker couldn’t have eked more out of the work and nor, I don’t think, could any others. In fact, a new and enduring partnership might be in the offing. Rhinestone may be emblematic here. While Williamson has been responsible for some real gems, this is something of a diamante, by comparison. (These days, it seems, he isn’t even sure what time SBS World News wraps.)

Sweet? Affecting? Engaging? For sure. Earthmoving? World-changing? Shattering? Uh-uh. If you prefer Packed To The Rafters to, say, Dateline, this might well be the play for you.

It’s fat-reduced DW. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Curtain Call rating: B-

The details: Rhinestone Rex and Miss Monica plays the Ensemble Theatre until November 14. Tickets from the Ensemble box office.

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