Mary Rachel Brown’s new play, the in-full version of her 2016 Lysicrates Prize-winner, examines addiction, enablement and the slow leaching of toxic emotions with effects that can last for years.
At its centre is Gabriel (Josh Quong Tart), a one-hit-wonder novelist wrestling with fading literary fortunes, turning 50, and a decades-long addiction to alcohol that has already cost him his marriage to Angela (Lucia Mastrantone).
Booze has taken Gabriel to the very edge – as far as an ill-informed suicide attempt – but right now, things seem to be looking up. His new manuscript is finished and he’s in the first blush of a relationship with the spunky 24-year-old Matilda (Kate Cheel).
Angela, meanwhile, has re-partnered (to Johnny Nasser’s straight-arrow Tony) though she remains Gabriel’s publisher.
Present contentedness can’t keep old demons down, however.
Brown has previously written about people struggling to process shame and anger and move on with their lives in All My Sleep and Waking, which had a recent and excellent production at the Old 505. But Dead Cat Bounce lacks the clarity of that play’s insight into the tangled web dependency weaves. Its characters are warmly sketched but lack depth – an impression heightened by the tone of director Mitchell Butel’s attractively spare production, which has the emotional brightness and contrast set unhelpfully high.
And so, rather than being convinced by the reality of the people in front of us, and intrigued by their journey, we find our attention drawn to the more obvious threads in the warp and weft of Brown’s writing.
Angela’s plight and sudden misfortune engage the sympathies of the audience late in the play – thanks in part to Mastrantone’s laser-guided instincts and Nasser’s deft switch of energy – but it comes at the expense of interest in Quong Tart’s Gabriel, who fades having never really sparkled.
Brown is too smart a playwright to make this anything less than an entertaining 95 minutes of theatre, but it’s nothing more, and it needs to be, given that this territory has been tilled so many times (recently in Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born).
Ultimately, Dead Cat Bounce leaves us to imagine a tougher, more demanding play than the one that has emerged.