What We’re Up Against (Review)

Aorta Theatre Collective presents a vibrant selection of scenes from Theresa Rebeck’s catalogue of razor sharp social satire.

Directed by Rob Hale

New York playwright, ‘relapsed Catholic’ and artful social commentator Theresa Rebeck has a back catalogue as long as your arm of acutely, playfully, hilariously observed satire. Evidently fascinated by the minutiae of human foibles, prejudices, mundane neuroses and twisted logic, her work is a masterclass of witty, energetic dialogue, bizarre non-sequiturs and heightened reality.

With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine how on earth Rebeck, in her own words, very nearly “fell off the map” following a scandalously misogynistic review of The Butterfly Collection in the New York Times in 2000. Despite the outrage of the theatre community and a flurry of complaints to the newspaper, this bad press forced the play to close and, for a time, it was seriously suggested that Rebeck either write under a male pseudonym or just “do something else”.

Thankfully, Rebeck hit back with a raft of superb plays including Mauritius, Bad Dates and the co-written Omnium Gatherum, even attracting a Pulitzer nomination for the latter. She also demonstrated that she could, in fact, “do something else”, by publishing an acclaimed novel, Three Girls and Their Brother, and writing the forthcoming series Smash for NBC – to be directed by Michael Mayer and produced by Stephen Spielberg, no less.

The seven scenes selected for What We’re Up Against, deftly handled by a highly competent cast, encompass issues as diverse as workplace misogyny, funeral parlour mix-ups and a struggling actor who would rather be a barman. All share the sense of quiet desperation that Rebeck specialises in, which infuses the comedy and humanises characters that are, on the face of it, rather unsympathetic.

Each scene is interspersed by shorter pieces from Rebeck’s one act play Mary, Mother of God, Intercede for Us, which shows a harangued, business-suited Virgin Mary, played by the excellent Juliet Prague, overrun by prayer ‘dockets’ and passing on requests of varying urgency and poignancy to a seemingly indifferent God – via the divine medium of her mobile phone.

As the play progresses, this juxtaposition becomes increasingly astute; subtle shifts in the performances between self-interested egotism and overwhelming emotional fragility are intensified by Mary’s increasing despair and rage at the arbitrary way her messages are dealt with- and her powerlessness to influence these decisions. Here, as in countless other examples of her work, Rebeck skilfully takes an exhausted argument and breathes fresh life into it through an imaginative, surprising and highly visual approach.

The cast are infectiously energetic, with Sally Scott’s barely concealed hysteria making for a particularly charged and engaging performance, but at times it felt that more variation in tone could enhance their effectiveness. The more muted delivery by Michael Benz and Tom Cornish in the funeral parlour scene created perfectly balanced tension between restrained fury and agonising grief, but Demi Oyedin, perhaps feeling a little underused, offered a forceful performance that proved slightly too overbearing for such an intimate space. The comic delivery, however, was spot on throughout, frequently leaving the audience helpless with laughter.

What We’re Up Against provides an excellent and intelligent interpretation of some of Rebeck’s finest pieces and the central throughline that binds together her work and ideas. For those unfamiliar with her work, Rob Hale’s selection also offers a perfect introduction to this extremely important contemporary playwright. Not to be missed.

****

The Old Red Lion Theatre, Angel. 8th Feb -3rd Mar 2011.

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