Unrequited love brings out the best and worst in people, says playwright Mary Rachel Brown. “Sometimes it brings out honesty and grace, and sometimes it brings out some pretty shocking behaviour.”
The four characters of Brown’s new play, Dead Cat Bounce, about to open at Griffin Theatre Company, exhibit the full spectrum.
“It certainly isn’t a Disney love story,” Brown says. “It’s kind of messy. It’s all the things that really happen when you’re in love – the compromises, the sacrifices.”
Dead Cat Bounce revolves around a 40-something novelist, Gabriel (played by Josh Quong Tart) and his lover Matilda (Kate Cheel), 20 years younger.
“Gabriel has an addiction problem, and the play is very much about how that affects the people around him,” Brown says. “I’m interested in those patterns of behaviour that people develop when they’re in romantic or intimate relationships with addicts. They can be ‘enabling’ for example, or they try to show ‘tough love’. Tolerance for things always shifts when love comes into the equation and when you’ve got love and addiction, tolerance goes to a whole new level.”
While the play is focused on one person’s struggle with addiction, the play itself has broader themes, says Brown.
“I think that if you break the idea of addiction down, it’s often about your relationship with yourself,” she says. “Everyone, at some stage in their life, has a troubled relationship with themselves – and we can’t escape ourselves.
“So some people jog, some people do yoga, some people do amphetamines and in this case, Gabriel drinks. But I think everyone will recognise that point in life where you find yourself hard to tolerate. Most people are lucky enough not to fall into some kind of addiction, but some aren’t.”
Dead Cat Bounce (stock market jargon for a temporary upswing during a long decline) began life under another title, Approximate Balance, a mere 20 pages of which saw Brown awarded the Lysicrates Prize in 2016 and a commission to complete the play.
“As a writer, you don’t often feel you have relationships with companies,” Brown says. “You come in, and you’re there for a while in the rehearsal room, and then you leave. But I’ve been part of the Griffin Studio and I’ve had an independent show (2015’s The Dapto Chaser) produced here. So this feels more like building a relationship, which is lovely.”
The debut production of Dead Cat Bounce is directed by Mitchell Butel, who also oversaw its Lysicrates Prize win.
“To me it’s Chekhov-meets-Barton Fink-meets-August: Osage County, in that it shows how a relationship can implode when you try to save the other person,” Butel says.
“Because the script has that kind of fierceness in its intelligence, I had to cast actors who could meet that. I’ve known Josh for years and he’s such a versatile beast: from The Lion King to The Judas Kiss. There are a lot of tropes around performing addiction and I felt we needed someone a bit mercurial and less predictable.”
Butel first met Kate Cheel when he directed her in the musical Spring Awakening at ATYP in 2016. Lucia Mastrantone and Jonny Nasser also feature as Gabriel’s ex-partner and her current partner, respectively. “Lucia is a formidable and powerful character actor and for Jonny’s role I needed someone beautiful, tender and strapping,” says Butel. “He’s ideal.”
For Quong Tart, rehearsals have been in part about discovering the different levels in a high functioning alcoholic’s behaviour.
“Gabriel’s a good guy, basically, he’s not an ugly drunk or one of those swaggering alcoholics. Mary put a beautiful line in about animals feigning death and that’s how it is for him, a way to play dead. It’s an emotional anaesthetic. And he’s one of those people who can get through three bottles in a night, go to work the next day and have everyone none the wiser. It’s only when he lets people into his life and they get close that the patterns in his behaviour become obvious.
“It’s quite hard to do, actually but it’s something I have to get right because, as you know, there’s nothing worse than bad drunk acting.”
But when you work in the arts industry, you don’t have to look too far for inspiration, Quong Tart says. “One person I know, when it’s early in the afternoon, drinks out of a tea cup. It’s not something I can do with this particular character, but you certainly think wow, someday I’d love to use that, you know.”
Brown hopes that time spent with her characters will be rewarding. “I hope it’ll make people feel a little less alone, which I know is a cliché, but the play dips into the difference between our public life and our private life and perhaps you’ll be able to leave feeling a bit comforted. All of the characters in the play have shame issues that they need to voice or let go off, and I think most people will be familiar with those trip wires.
“In the end, as they leave the theatre, I hope people will hold the hand of the person they love a little bit tighter.”
Dead Cat Bounce plays at Griffin Theatre Company, Kings Cross until April 6.