The Removalists

A Red Orchid Theatre


Organic Touchstone Company

at Touchstone Theatre

By Adam Langer

These days there’s more to producing a play than choosing a good script–in fact, sometimes that seems to be the last thing on any company’s mind. First you’ve got to get past questions of what will look good on a grant proposal, what will satisfy the company’s subscriber base, what kind of stories you can pitch to the media, what sort of name talent you can attract to the project, and what has enough parts for the ensemble but not so many as to risk bankruptcy. Then you can think about the script itself.

A Red Orchid Theatre and Organic Touchstone Company are two savvy groups with no shortage of talent. The acting in their productions is usually top-notch, and Red Orchid in particular has a history of producing adventurous, intellectually stimulating works by great European playwrights many mainstream companies overlook. But both Red Orchid and Organic Touchstone have made misguided choices here. David Williamson’s The Removalists seems newsworthy but falls flat, and Anne Meara’s After-Play is not so much a solid script as a commodity calculated to attract an audience. To paraphrase George Bush attacking Bill Clinton, I don’t question these companies’ talent–I question their judgment.

At least on paper there are compelling reasons to stage The Removalists, a darkly satiric expose of corrupt and brutal police. Incendiary and brashly outspoken, this 1971 Australian play seems as immediate as today’s headlines. The ferocious dialogue and rough-and-tumble stage combat offer excellent opportunities for a company of fine actors to strut their stuff. At the same time, Williamson’s hackneyed, implausible story nearly crosses the border into bloody farce just when it should be most gripping. With the ten o’clock news rife with tales of cops shaking down gang members, torturing suspects, and shooting unarmed citizens, a drama about police brutality that defies belief seems unlikely. Yet Williamson has written just that.

Williamson is known here primarily for his film work, most notably The Year of Living Dangerously and Gallipoli. And like the stage plays of many successful screenwriters, The Removalists is somewhat schematic and two-dimensional. Set in Melbourne, it concerns a cynical police sergeant who enlists the help of a new constable on a simple domestic assignment, intending to use it as an opportunity to seduce or rape the two women who’ve come to the police for aid. Sergeant Simmonds and Constable Ross are asked to protect a woman and her sister from an abusive Foster’s-swilling husband who’s supposed to be out drinking while his wife is having her furniture removed from their apartment. When Simmonds’s initial plan is foiled by the husband, who decides to stay home that night, he and the constable get their kicks by beating the living shit out of the man.

The character of the drunk, violent husband could have come from any real-life TV show like Cops, where assholes are always telling the arresting officer that they’ve “only had a coupla beers.” Simmonds is so blatantly evil, however, that Williamson’s critique of the twisted forces of “justice” fails to register. A familiar but over-the-top heavy, he’s more bloodthirsty than any sheriff in a Jim Thompson novel and more corrupt than even Orson Welles’s classic police chief in Touch of Evil. His lines are barely of TV caliber (“Stuff the rule book up your arse; life’s got its own rules”), and Williamson offers little evidence of what would create the sort of amoral monster Simmonds is.

The seemingly meek Ross, on the other hand, is too indistinct to be credible in a crucial scene where he snaps in a fit of rage, going momentarily berserk. Williamson fares better with the supporting characters, most notably the abused wife’s meddlesome, bossy sister and a wryly philosophical furniture mover–a “removalist”–who has the play’s funniest lines. But after a while the incessant brawling and scraping grow more tiresome and less believable, as the drama threatens to turn into a world championship wrestling match. The play veers irrevocably into the absurd when one character, thought to be dead, rises like a blood-spattered Rocky Balboa in the final round or like James Cagney after being struck by a hail of bullets.

Director Adrian Butcher’s production is a trifle cramped and flat-footed: building tension by having one character circle another menacingly is an overly familiar yet unnatural device. But the stellar cast at times is able to mask the flaws in the staging and in Williamson’s script. Particularly strong are Guy Van Swearingen, who stalks the stage like a caged jackal as the drunken lout of a husband, Kirsten Fitzgerald as his caustic sister-in-law, and a witty Rick Sandoval as the removalist. With performances this strong and a topic this blistering, you can understand why Red Orchid might have gambled on inferior material; unfortunately, they gambled and lost.

Equally understandable but a good deal less defensible is Organic Touchstone Company’s choice of After-Play: the recognizable author and the roles for talented, older Equity actors are aimed right at the heart of OTC’s staid audience. Meara’s extended dinner conversation between two aging show-biz couples, one Jewish and one Catholic, might be a commercially viable choice. But one small item ruins everything: the script.

Meara is probably better known today as an actress than as half of the lesser Nichols-and-May comedy team she formed with Jerry Stiller, which appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and in numerous commercials. The 1995 After-Play is her first script, and it arrives here trailing stellar reviews from its premiere at New York’s prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club. But it feels as trite and mothballed as one of Stiller and Meara’s 70s radio spots for Blue Nun. Reminiscing in a chic restaurant that bears a passing resemblance to purgatory, the two couples laugh, fight, cry, argue over the play they’ve just seen, relive good times and bad, bemoan their fates, enumerate their ailments, discuss their therapies, and after encountering a couple who’ve lost their son to AIDS, come to the conclusion that their lives, though flawed, haven’t been so bad after all.

The message may be uplifting, particularly for ticket sales, but a collection of homilies uttered by some rather sketchily drawn New York and LA types doesn’t make for much of a play. A good deal of the time, the kvetching and needling of the dialogue resemble the most self-indulgent, least funny scenes of latter-day Woody Allen films, with familiar complaints about unrealized dreams, ungrateful children, and the inability to understand what it all means. The sentiments may be realistic, as when the couples inform us that “It’s just a different world today” and they’d “just like to make some sense of it all,” but the feelings are stated so baldly and in such a ho-hum setting that they’re almost impossible to endure without rolling the eyes or suppressing a groan. Call it “My Dinner With Andre’s Four Dull Friends.” During one of the rants about being heartbroken by one’s children, I couldn’t help but think that Mel Brooks had said it all, and with more wit and subtlety, 30-odd years ago as the 2,000-year-old man, who complained that he had “over 22,000 children and not one of them comes to visit me.”

Steve Scott’s staging is attractively designed, and his cast is serviceable enough; most effective is Linda Kimbrough as the cynical, bitingly witty Renee Shredman. Still, most of the actors seem at least 15 years too young for their characters; Michael Guido’s soap-opera good looks and sprightly mannerisms are particularly ill suited to the role of a former gag writer for The Jack Benny Show who’s recently undergone a quintuple bypass. But even a perfect cast

couldn’t rescue a script with nary an original idea or an original way of expressing old ones. ow

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Removalists photo by Daniel Guidara; After-Play photo by Dan Rest.