A man walks into a bar…
We’ve all heard jokes that start like this. This is also how the play Zebra by Ross Mueller begins. An absolutely incredible, intricately detailed set (by David McKay) greets the audience. Imagine your typical New York bar. Down some steps off 46th Street complete with TV’s, snow falling outside, oil heaters, a fluourescent pub sign in the window, peanut shells on a drink stained wooden floor, a juke box, a mirror behind the bottles of liquor, fairy lights, photos and signed football memorabilia all over the walls. The set overwhelms you. For me, it brought back memories of my trip to the US last January and the fondess I now have for all things American. I enjoyed looking from one side of the set to the other admiring the detail.
Unfortunately, this is about the only great thing about Zebra. The Sydney Theatre Company’s latest offering is set on a morning in January 2009. Bryan Brown’s Jimmy walks into the bar heading straight for the toilet with a cut on his head. Next, bar owner “Jill” enters with U-Haul boxes, starting up the juke-box. It blares Irish band The Pogues music loudly out of the bar. She leaves again only for Larry (Colin Friels) to walk in, thinking he’s hit the jackpot with an unoccupied bar. Helping himself to some whiskey, “Jill” re-enters the bar and the action begins. The audience soon learns Larry is waiting to meet his soon-to-be son-in-law. However, what he doesn’t realise is that it is in fact Jimmy.
The unfortunate thing about Mueller’s script is that nothing particularly interesting happens. It’s not interesting because the character’s aren’t really interesting. Frankly, they’re stereotyped. Bryan Brown isn’t really stretching himself too much in the acting stakes because he’s playing a typical Aussie. He sounds so Australian that it clashes obviously with Friel’s inconsistent New York twang. Perhaps that was Mueller’s point. That there is that obvious lack of understanding (especially in terms of humour) and difference between American’s and Australian’s. Nadine Garner’s ,”Jill” is defensive and trying to cope with owning a bar that was left to her by her late husband during the GFC. Her character seems to act purely as a link between the two male characters flitting between the two to fill scenes and break tension and redirect the narrative.
The Global Financial Crisis is an interwoven theme throughout the play. Larry is a millionaire unaffected by the crisis writing out cheques left, right and centre, whilst Jimmy has lost everything and “Jill” is mopping up the mess after her husband commits suicide. Perhaps because Australians were relatively unaffected by it, the reality of the situation has little effect. The relationship between Jimmy and Larry is not likeable, tense and disconnected. There are a few strong moments, particularly when Larry and Jimmy work out who each other is, however I found myself drifting off in sections of the dialogue because it seemed like pointless rambling.
The metaphor of the Zebra referred to several times throughout the play makes sense but comes across weakly and just doesn’t seem to work. When Larry and Jimmy fight it seems as though they are emulating the zebra and you can see how they are acting like zebras (the father of a female zebra chases away any “suitors” trying to abduct her) but it just seems tokenist, like a let’s-have-a-metaphor-for-metaphor’s sake and a weak choice of metaphor at that.
The first of my subscription plays that I have felt was much weaker than some of the others, this is one zebra that can be abducted.