BY DIANA SIMMONDS
JANUARY 25 2017
ODD MAN OUT, Ensemble Theatre, 19 January-18 March 2017. Photography by Clare Hawley: above – Justin Stewart Cotta; below – Gael Ballantyne and Lisa Gormley; below again – JS Cotta, Rachel Gordon and Matt Minto
Playwright David Williamson is, as we know, “hot” in Hollywood these days, so it’s not entirely surprising that his new dramedy Odd Man Out begins with Ryan (Justin Stewart Cotta) and Alice (Lisa Gormley) in what’s called in Tinseltown a “meet cute”. That’s defined by urbandictionary.com as “a scenario in which two individuals are brought together in some unlikely, zany, destined-to-fall-in-love-and-be-together-forever sort of way (the more unusual, the better).”
Ryan and Alice meet on a bus which is not zany or unusual in itself but the way Ryan goes about it definitely is. His niceness and weird intensity are at once charming and more than just a bit off. As Alice tells us straight out with a wry smile, she should have realised, she should have been more aware and wary; but that’s all very well in retrospect.
It turns out that Ryan is not so much eccentric – which he surely is – but actually has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome (autism spectrum disorder). He goes from telling Alice she has a beautiful smile, to asking her out and telling her he’s dated women much better looking than she, but not anywhere near as nice in about three minutes flat. For Alice, it’s like being whacked with a sock-full of sand: she doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going. But then he smiles at her and she’s lost…
It is way overdue that Justin Stewart Cotta be cast in a leading role that showcases what a wonderful actor he is. Ryan has to be genuinely appealing and gorgeous to counteract the freaky-peculiar aspects of his character; he has to be “normal” in every way and not be an easily overdone, melodramatic loony. Take one step too close to that line and the play would come apart as it wouldn’t be plausible for either the audience or Alice to fall for him – and we have to and do!
Alice – beguiled and also attracted by the hopelessly classic idea of helping or curing someone who has a bit of a problem – is drawn to him and also by the ticking of her biological clock. She’s 38 and knows that her next relationship, after some ghastly mistakes, had better be “the one”. In every way Ryan ought to be the man. She can overlook his obsessive planning, encyclopaedic knowledge of the most esoteric or trivial things and other oddities, but it gets perilous when he meets her friends and mum and dad.
Ryan has no emotional or social filters and no idea that telling vacuous BFF Carla (Rachel Gordon) what he really thinks of her and her adman hubby (Matt Minto) is not the way to go on an evening out; that telling Alice’s dad Gary (Bill Young) that his pride and joy brand new Jag is a heap isn’t the way to win over the in-laws.
Practical Alice goes about teaching Ryan how to cope with mundane day-to-day life, but it’s a slog and she’s not helped by his mother’s (Gael Ballantyne) refusal to acknowledge a problem or assist. And her own mother (also Ballantyne) isn’t encouraging either because she’s seen Alice make way too many silly mistakes – thanks mum.
Odd Man Out is not a laugh-a-minute Williamson comedy although there is much droll humour. It’s delivered not by one-liners or jokes but in seeing how Ryan – a bona fide genius (working in numbers and computers) – is made to feel a lesser being by people whose IQs and good intentions barely register on the social Richter scale.
Pathos eases in, particularly to the second half, through Cotta’s finely nuanced performance. His blank stare signals profound incomprehension while his body telegraphs the inner turmoil and intellectual short-circuiting being caused by the impossibility of his situation. At the same time, Gormley makes a terrific, intuitive partner in this psychic tug-of-war as each tries valiantly to come to terms with what is rather than what ought to be.
The play is really a two-hander with the rest of the cast filling in the gaps, but doing so with conviction and generosity. Director Mark Kilmurry makes the very most of his two lead actors and between them they achieve a remarkably fascinating two hours (including interval) of only too human drama. Anna Gardiner’s simple setting of a wall of prettily-coloured brain pathways (lighting Christopher Page) is effective as is Alistair Wallace’s subtle sound design.
There have to be many among us who recognise a disturbing amount of Ryan’s behaviour in ourselves; and Alice’s dogged determination to make it all good is also way too familiar! That’s the thing about David “Hot” Williamson: you can’t write him off as a mere jokester or didactic social commentator, although some are wont to do that.
He demonstrates, through this latest play, that light entertainment and the depths of humanity can co-exist very comfortably, particularly when the central role is in the hands of an actor such as Justin Stewart Cotta. And with back up from another such actor as Lisa Gormley, the end result is absorbing. Recommended.