Friday, February 10, 2017

Odd Man Out by David Wlliamson

Lisa Gormley as Alice, Justin Stewart Cotta as Ryan
Odd Man Out by David Williamson at Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, January 19 – March 18, 2017.

Director – Mark Kilmurry; Designer – Anna Gardiner; Lighting – Christopher Page; Sound – Alistair Wallace; Wardrobe – Renata Beslik.

Emily/Polly – Gael Ballantyne; Ryan – Justin Stewart Cotta; Carla – Rachel Gordon; Alice – Lisa Gormley; Evan/Neville – Matt Minto; Gary/Police Officer – Bill Young.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 9

Odd Man Out is a romantic comedy about mirror neurons.  Alice has them in spades (she’s a remedial physiotherapist).  Ryan’s are missing in action (he’s a theoretical astro-physicist whose head is full of equations).

In this play David Williamson unexpectedly takes us in a new direction.  The depth of characterisation, the twists and turns of social implications, are more akin to his plays of restorative justice (or ‘diversionary conferencing’) such as in Face to Face, (reviewed in The Canberra Times, March 2000 and available at than to his more usual comedies based on upsetting social conventions, like Cruise Control as a recent example (reviewed on this blog April 2014).

The play is held together – on the immediate level, as well as at a deeper metaphorical level – by Alice speaking directly to the audience, requiring Lisa Gormley to switch our attention between “frames” in a way that I think Williamson has not previously achieved.  Think of Tom in A Glass Menagerie, except that Gormley makes Alice such a vivid attractive character that we sincerely experience her laughter and the sadness in equal measure.

The romance is not lost while the real difficulties of life for a high-achieving Asperger’s syndrome sufferer and his loving partner become clearer and clearer as the play progresses.  I had tears of tragedy through tears of joy at the end.  The theatrical experience felt light even while the future for Ryan and Alice will inevitably be tough going.

Justin Stewart Cotta caught the fine points of Ryan’s excitement and unexplainable frustrations perfectly, matching Gormley laugh for laugh, blow-up for blow-up, making the romance real.

This could not happen without Williamson’s top-class dialogue, including for the surrounding cameo roles, each precisely characterised just outside our expectations of mothers, fathers, girl friends and their boy friends.

But the stage design and directing did not miss a beat.  Simplicity and directness in the intimate space of the Ensemble Theatre was the exact approach to take, with sound built in to the needs, and no more than the needs of the script.  It’s so nice (in its archaic sense of ‘precise’ as well as being ‘pleasant’) to see a production done without pretension.

So, what are mirror neurons and why are they important to know about?  They were discovered only about a decade ago in the brains of macaque monkeys.  They – the  neurons – light up when the monkeys make an action, and also when the monkeys see another animal make the same action.

Maybe, if a person’s mirror neurons are not working properly, he (more commonly than she) will not be able to ‘see’ the meaning of another person’s facial expression or body language.  The result would be a social communication disaster.

In Odd Man Out, Ryan is near the extreme end of the spectrum.  Only with great effort and dedication can Alice, from the other end of the spectrum, help him cope, especially considering how he has been isolated, vilified and bullied throughout his childhood and previous attempts at relationships. 

The play may apparently be a romantic comedy, but in the end it is a plea for non-discrimination and help for all affected by autism and Asperger’s syndrome.  If the spectrum theory is true, as seems very likely, then remember we are all somewhere along the line from Alice to Ryan. 

Let’s call it empathetic comedy, and thank David Williamson for writing it.

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