A Simple Act of Kindness is Ross Mueller’s first play for The Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. It is also his first written over Zoom, a necessity that likely intensified and shaped much of what the play deals with – family life, balanced with the pressures and obsessions of real estate, in the context of lockdown.
Sophia is buying her first home, having inherited her parents’ dream of ‘breaking into the property market’. Tony, her father, offers to match her savings, but Sophia wants more than his money can buy. She and her friend Greg pool their savings and prepare to co-purchase an apartment, and Sophia tricks Tony into stumping up to match the newly enlarged total by pretending that she and Greg are engaged. Tony leaps at the opportunity to secure Sophia’s financial future, and makes an emotionally-fuelled decision without consulting Julie, his wife, or their own financial situation.
Later, when things start to crack open (literally – Tony scrimped on the structural engineer’s report) Sophia rejects all responsibility and blames her parents for her choices. She even blames Greg, who never even consented to their engagement masquerade. When the global pandemic hits and Tony loses his job, and they all have to shack up together, Greg is in many ways the most unfortunate. He’s implicated, but uninvested. He isn’t versed in this family’s communication style – of bargaining, powerplay, one-upping and yelling, where everything is taken personally. The mother-father-daughter triad can flare into flamboyant outbursts or descend into navel-gazing. As a self-described outsider, Greg sees it all.
Greg also has the power to de-escalate and redirect. During the second act, he says something like ‘where we inhabit is where our family is’. This affords a much needed pause, and prompts the other characters to reflect in new, albeit still impeccably self-centred, ways. Julie asks us to ‘imagine if this family valued family like a family cult leader’. Tony laments (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘what is life… you grow your hair, you pick a property in the recession… capitalism is a wacky thing’. Sophia wishes she had been able to choose the colour and paint her childhood room, like she was promised.
This memory stands as an example for everything that could have been, but wasn’t, but still could be because here they are, crammed together, gaming, painting, working and working out, without the ability to anxiously seek the acquisition of material assets (though they give it a red hot go with online shopping), and here they could learn how to be as a family. These character developments of accepting the lot one has, or doesn’t have, may plausibly seem clichéd, yet they come across as anything but. You can feel, or at least project, the artists’ very real experiences in the recent years we’ve had. The writing, staging and acting all feel lived through.
This is director Peter Houghton’s second time directing a play written by Mueller (after 1997’s No Man’s Island). The first play revolved around a father-son relationship and was set in a prison. The parallels are striking: the family constellation expanded, the style of oppressions subtler. Here a family is writhing in the past decisions, values and misgivings that led them to this point – living together in a tiny apartment (tiny, depending on who you ask) in the middle of nowhere (also, depending on who you ask).
This likely all sounds rather grim. But in spite of, and because of, all the drama, A Simple Act of Kindness is a comedy from beginning to end. The dialogue is sharp, potent and rhythmic. Repeated dialogue punches overlap in mid-air, another joke hits before you’ve had time to resolve your response to its predecessor. The runtime flies by. This play is a page-turner.
Occasionally, the pace is smothering. But the stylised rapid-firing also gives the play its tone, its truth. A calculated sense of ordeal left me replaying things back, in my head, for days.
Of course, if this is a play about ‘our’ recent experiences, the ‘we’ in question is a highly specific group of people: the relatability will mostly strike a chord with white middle-class Australian families of a Boomer–Millennial generational cross-section, or anyone interested in commentary on this group.
I don’t mean to suggest the play is limited by this, but rather that this is the lens through which it is framed and informed. And rather than assume anything of the lived experiences of the artists involved, I want to applaud their realness, and the comedy that they all accessed through what could be deep study or deep knowledge, or both.
A Simple Act of Kindness by Ross Mueller
Red Stitch Actors Theatre
Director: Peter Houghton
Set and Costume Design: Jacob Battista and Sophie Woodward
Lighting Design: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Sound Design: David Franzke
Stage Manager: Natasha Marich
Assistant Stage Manager: Douglas Hassack
Assistant Lighting Design: Sam Diamond
Cast: Khisraw Jones-Shukoor, Joe Petruzzi, Sarah Sutherland, Lou Wall
A Simple Act of Kindness will be performed until 18 December 2022.