November 19, 2021

How Not to Make it in America

How Not to Make it in America
by Emily Steel
Theatre Republic.
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
November 18. Until November 20.
Murray Bramwell

“Hi I’m Matt. I’m here to audition for the role of Juliet”. These are the opening lines of Emily Steel’s excellent new play How Not to Make it in America . Those who followed the Act Now/ State Theatre’s Decameron 2.0 Project online last year would have already met Matt, and his performer James Smith, but now Steel and Theatre Republic have developed a sketch into a sixty minute play with multiple voices – in this instance, 28 of them. And the result is terrific.

Matt has just graduated from drama school in Australia and is now in New York City, tagging behind his long-time friend Michelle (it is unclear if she’s ever been a GF, I’m presuming not) who has scored an internship with a socially progressive NGO.

Emily Steel is drawing on her own experiences in the US at the turn of the new century- full of hopes (high, low and often dashed) to break into the theatre world in the buzziest city in the world. But this is very much Matt’s story and James Smith has us believing it every step of the way.

Matt is a portrait of the young actor’s life- the endless manoeuvring to promote yourself even when morale is low, chasing auditions, distributing photo headshots and resumes, and trying to get leverage from whatever connections and influence can be wangled. At the same time he needs a day job to pay the bills.

For Matt, work is at Kim’s Mediapolis, the Uptown branch of Kim’s Video and Music. He stacks shelves and repacks returns while immersing himself in art movies, name-checking directors -Tarkovsky, Wes Anderson, Verhoeven. The hourly rate is six dollars. Payday is Tuesday and from that Matt divvies his food allocation and the couch rent to Tom, a bumptious UK actor claiming to be a RADA graduate, who thinks it’s hilarious to call his lodger Dundee (you call that a knife ?)

Steel’s detail is so specific you can taste it. Matt plans his payday menu – his one meal for the day. It’s the everything bagel at Nussbaum and Wu. Everything means more bits for the same price – grains and seeds. But no cream cheese because that’s 50 cents extra and that means no cup of tea. And don’t forget to ask for hot tea and milk, or you’ll get iced peach. And it’s not butter, it’s budderr.

Only gradually do we realise that Matt’s account of a week in New York is not happening in any ordinary week. At one point he is urgently trying to contact his parents, feeding coins into a pay phone. They don’t reply; finally he reaches his Gran. It is late at night in Australia. Just tell them I’m okay he insists.

At another point he describes standing in a crowd by a hot dog cart, but nobody is buying food, they are listening to voices on the radio. It is 2001 in New York City, mid-morning on September 11. The World Trade Centre buildings – identified to Matt for navigation by a local named Emmanuel (“You see the Twin Towers, you can work out where to go”) – are burning and collapsing.

In Theatre Republic’s impressive production, unerringly directed by Corey McMahon, Steel’s text is brought vividly into life. Meg Wilson’s design is thriftily simple – using three inter-leaved screens for projections and a clear floor for the performer.

It is then open for Chris Petridis to work his lighting and AV magic. His projections are derived from drone footage from New York City which have become mercurial abstractions – white ghostly outlines or intense pixellated colour patterns – all complemented by Jason Sweeney’s carefully-judged subliminal music and restrained sound design.

It is interesting that the production steers away from literal images of New York and the graphic images and frantic sirens of 9/11 – instead leaving us to our own heavily archived imaginations.

But all this is the frame for the performance. And James Smith steps into the centre stage with an ease and expressive range which is astonishing. We have seen his work flourish in Adelaide – in Gorgon, in previous Theatre Republic works such as Lines, in the lead for Jasper Jones and in this year’s State season with his multiple performances in Emily Steel’s Euphoria and, with Elizabeth Hay, in the startling second act of Finegan Kruckmeyer’s Hibernation . Here, he shows what he can do with an empty stage and a beautifully nuanced text.

From the moment Smith appears we know our character. He has a knack for capturing a particularly endearing aspect of the Australian character – one that is a touch archaic for someone as young as Smith, but it still rings true. He has an unworldly sense of wonder, a slightly goofy diffidence, a warmth and open-heartedness – and, when he shifts from one foot to another, a determination to do his level best.

That is Matt – when cruelly misled by Tom the English cad into thinking he’s auditioning for a cross-dressed Romeo and Juliet, and when he is restating his mantra that if only he can show his best work he will make it in America.

Smith also enables us to know Matt because of how he interacts with others. All of course, played by Smith himself. Raph and Dave (aka Dae-Jung) at the video store, Tom and Brian, Michelle, Emmanuel, the Bagel Girl, the Visa Lawyer with a Jewish Noo Yark accent, Nan, the Grocery Guy, the Line Guy, the Flea Guy, the Director, the Screen Writer of Boys Don’t Cry, Jose, and his former Drama Teacher – all are voices and incarnations he conjures and interacts with. The quality of the writing and clarity of direction all assist in bringing these performances into such satisfying immediacy.

Admirably compact and portable, and with such transferable themes, this work definitely deserves an extended touring life finding new and appreciative audiences. It might be called How Not to Make it in America, but this production is living proof of how to succeed in the theatre.

November 19, 2021.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment