Review by John Wells
Phil’s mistake was arranging a bit of afternoon delight with a hooker at home. (What’s wrong with a flea-bag motel Phil?) Of course, his wife Joan comes home early from her yoga class, finding Phil getting down to business on the marital couch. Phil wants to talk, Joan just wants to tidy the cushions and straighten the throw rug. (Prostitutes can really mess up your interior design.) Soon after, Phil and Joan’s friends have arrived and the tension is as strong as the cocktails being thrown down with abandon.
After some preliminary niceties, Joan, leading the group like an unhinged and sexually-charged Boadicea, challenges her husband and friends to a truth-or-dare drinking game. It’s not long before everyone has perfunctorily swapped spouses and is banging someone else’s beloved in a spare bedroom. All this in a speedy and pacy first act of about forty minutes – wham-bam-thankyou-ma’am indeed. The second half of the play is more leisurely and wordy, as the couples react in different ways to the frenzied disregard shown to their marriage vows.
The greatest pleasure of this production is the fact that the Rep is producing it at all. “It’s Just Sex” is the Australian premiere of a 2011 play by American writer Jeff Gould, which is a long way from the well-known and sometimes dated shows that fill the Rep’s repertoire. Bravo to director Erik Strauts for his choice. It is a very positive move to see established companies exploring new work.
Strauts directs this play with great pace and panache. There is a lightness of touch and a confident flair which give this play a real momentum. Strauts is assisted by an excellent ensemble. While on opening night it seemed that the actors were not quite settled in their roles, and needed a bit more time to find the nuances and calibrate the relationships, there is no doubt there is some fine talent on stage. Bronwyn Ruciak brings a wounded flintiness to Joan, James Whitrow (Phil) reveals a thoughtful bedroom philosopher (working hard with some pretty lame lines), and Jonathan Johnston has a lovely, easy charm as the constantly-aroused but broad-minded Carl. This is truly an ensemble piece, and Luke Budgen, Sharon Pitardi and Tess O’Flaherty all contribute strongly.
But working against the cast is a pedestrian text. There are some big laughs, but too often the zingers fall flat. The play is not funny enough for a raucous comedy. Equally, Gould has pretensions of making profound insights into sexual mores. These weighty comments unravel into superficial pseudo-sound-bites. The play is not serious or clever enough to succeed as an examination of the pitfalls of marriage. It is middle-class and middle-aged ennui. It feels like a poor man’s Woody Allen at times.
For a modern play, the attitudes feel surprisingly dated. There is a ‘70s keys-in-the-bowl vibe that sits uneasily in a play that begins with Phil whipping out his iPhone to take a happy snap in between the hooker’s enthusiastically spread-eagled legs. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack roots the action (as it were) several decades in the past. There is a casual sexism too – the men have all the compassion, knowledge, convictions and deep thought.
Despite these reservations, there is a delicious rudeness, with touches of poignancy, in this production. It is a welcome addition to the programming of amateur companies. I hope all local companies can find space in their seasons for new works. And I would bet my house that the content of the final scene (which I won’t reveal) has never been done by the Rep in its century-plus history…