I hated this show so much that thinking about writing this review gave me a stomach ache. I don’t want to be cruel but, if I’m not frank, I’m not doing my job.
I first encountered playwright Bronwyn Carradine’s Unexpecting in early 2021 when it was an audio play produced by the Arts Club. Back then, I wrote that the script “skips along at a snappy sitcom pace”, but complained that “the piling on of obstacles often feels arbitrary and insubstantial.” Having gone through a couple of workshops since then — presumably with Zee Zee Theatre, the company producing this fully staged version — the script is now massively worse. And it’s been very badly directed by Cameron Mackenzie.
Within that, there are a couple of strong performances and Lachlan Johnston’s set is exciting.
Let’s get into it.
In the story, lesbian couple Annie and Jo are on the brink of adopting a baby when the birth mother, Sawyer, changes her mind and calls it off. Annie and Jo are devastated.
But it takes a while for us to hear about Sawyer’s reversal and, even then, most of Act 1 is consumed by Annie’s equivocation about whether she’s going to accept a tenure track position as a creative writing prof or fly to LA to join a writers’ room led by her childhood friend Pam. Jo also has a side conflict: she’s an artist and gallery owner, and the installation of a sculpture exhibit is going off the rails. Body parts are being fused together in the wrong positions.
There’s a whole lot wrong with this.
Adoption, making a family that includes kids, is at the heart of the play, but, in this new version of the script, that gets sidelined for the 80-minute-long first act. And I didn’t give a flying fuck about Annie’s job options — partly because I didn’t believe in them for a second. We find out that Annie’s first novel spent 20 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. As if. At no point does the character as written give us any indication that she has the emotional depth or artistic sophistication usually required to achieve such a thing. Nor does she display the intellectual command one would expect to see in a prof — especially in today’s competitive academic job market. Part of the problem here is that Mackenzie has miscast Rahat Saini in the role: in a superficial performance, Saini adds zero heft.
Jo’s professional crisis also takes up a fair bit of time — more than in the earlier version — but neither of these narrative threads goes anywhere at all. They just get dumped in Act 2, so why bring them up in the first place? As the play stands, Act 1, which is much longer than it used to be, is largely useless.
Under Mackenzie’s direction, extended sequences of frantic physical “comedy” are so unfunny I started to cringe when I saw them forming on the horizon.
And there’s plenty more unfunny comedy written into the script. As she heads out for her university interview, Annie gets dressed in an ugly blouse. Jokes about said blouse waste stage time — and contribute sweet zip to the script’s narrative or thematic development. When Jo comes home to pick up some carpentry tools to take back to the gallery, Pam freaks out because she thinks Jo might murder her with the hacksaw. In what universe? This is completely arbitrary.
I haven’t been able to ascertain who dramaturged this script, but whoever it was, I suspect they’ve done Carradine a major disservice. They seem to have said, “Yeah, just keep throwing ideas out there! And leave them all in! Take as much time as you want. And don’t worry about pesky details like making logical sense or finding the essential narrative structure!”
As a director, Mackenzie’s approach has certainly been, “Make it big! It’ll be hilarious!” But it’s not. It’s grating.
And the performers suffer. Because Saini’s work is superficial, it also feels false and, in that sense, overacted. Playing Annie’s friend Pam, Melissa Oei takes the overacting further. Oei can be an affecting performer but, under Mackenzie’s direction, she draws a cartoon-like portrait of the smart-mouthed, sexpot girl boss.
It’s the sloppiness of this enterprise that drives me nuts.
Fortunately, Act 2, which is much more in line with the earlier draft, is much better than the more thoroughly overhauled Act 1.
Sawyer shows up, fully pregnant, at Annie and Jo’s apartment. So, at long last, the script concentrates on its true focus: the baby.
Throughout Act 1, Jessica Heafey’s Jo has been the only recognizably human character onstage. But Elizabeth Barrett’s Sawyer is human #2. Neither of these actors sacrifice the script’s comedy; they simply play it with enough subtlety that I could appreciate it. With its fundamental naturalism, Barrett’s portrait of Sawyer has all the innocence and vulnerability of a really good clown: her bafflement provides an excellent comic counterpoint to the general zaniness. And, in Act 2, Heafey brought me to tears in a development that I won’t give away.
Lachiln Johnston’s set is audacious. He has flipped the Studio 16 space sideways to give the production an enormous playing area, and he has filled that zone with Jo’s massive paintings, as well as an eccentric collection of lights and other objects. But I have a quibble: preparing for Sawyer’ visit, Jo and Pam remove a painting of two naked women from the wall. Pam calls it “porno” and Jo doesn’t want to offend Sawyer — but they leave up a whole series of paintings that depict only slightly stylized vulvas in various hues. I don’t get it.
I’m grateful for the successful work in this production. And Carradine has potential, but she needs better dramaturgical and directorial support.
UNEXPECTING By Bronwyn Carradine. Directed by Cameron Mackenzie. A Zee Zee Theatre production. On Saturday, May 6. Running at Studio 16 until May 21. Tickets
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