Deviations is subtitled "a stylish black comedy about sex". This is only half the story; it's equally a serious piece about lies, deliberate and inadvertent. Allen O'Leary's script strikes a delicate balance of humour and tragedy and this production, from Canberra's Elbow Theatre Company, is a deeply felt human drama.
A delicate balance of humour and tragedy
Richard (Michael Butcher) and Susan (Lenore McGregor) are old friends and former lovers. He is an embittered advertising copywriter and sometime poet, she a sharp-tongued architect. They spend evenings playing Scrabble and good-naturedly tormenting each other. Matt (Pip Branson) and Karen (Lucie O'Brien) are a young couple whose relationship is foundering in a sea of misunderstandings and evasions.
The four lives become intertwined when Susan is smitten by Karen upon meeting her in a cafe. Richard, meanwhile, strikes up a conversation with Matt in a bar and is similarly beguiled. Karen doesn't mention that she has a longtime boyfriend; Matt adopts a new name and identity for his encounters with Richard, including a quasi-Buddhist outlook and a terminal illness.
This is fertile, if familiar, ground for comedy. Karen and Matt contrive to keep their new relationships (his determinedly platonic, hers less so) secret from each other, and their own relationship hidden from Susan and Richard. Beneath the snappy farce, however, Deviations has a strong current of despair.
The younger couple tell casual untruths in their separate pursuits which they have to perpetuate to maintain the charade. Against her better judgment, Susan becomes emotionally attached to her mysterious new lover, and Richard gains a new lease on life through his involvement with the stoic, doomed Matt. Or rather, Eric as he believes.
Neither of them realises just how false their perceptions of the pair are, and how they have endowed them with attributes and motivations that are more projections of their own needs. Farce inevitably tips into tragedy, and it is a credit to writer O'Leary that the script manages this transition with subtlety and sureness.
Deviations is played for the most part in short, punchy bursts of drama. The expository opening scenes are a little mawkish, but once the context and characters are established the play glows like an incandescent lightbulb; though one fitted with a dimmer switch, judging by the progressively darker hue of the text. Performances are excellent and it's hard to single out specific points of praise in such a fine ensemble - the dynamic between all four actors lifts the play out of the ordinary.
Deviations is a potent new Australian play and this Elbow Theatre production does complete justice to it.
Reviewed by Aaron Jelbart.