Minnie & Liraz

Minnie & Liraz
By Lally Katz. Melbourne Theatre Company. Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio. 12 May – 24 June 2017.

At the Autumn Road Retirement Village, Minnie Cohen (Nancye Hayes), bridge player extraordinaire, nearly ninety, is perplexed by the sudden, mysterious death of her bridge partner.  She also worries about her unmarried thirty-eight-year old granddaughter and guilty about the son who never contacts her from the other side of the world – all as she continues her lifelong preparation for widowhood.  Her husband Morris (Rhys McConnochie), deaf and grumpy, has two aims left: to be with Minnie and to outlive her – because what would she do without him? 

But then loud, crude, grating Liraz Weinberg (Sue Jones), over ninety, erupts into their lives – or drives in on her scarifying mobility scooter – to bully Minnie into becoming her bridge partner.  Liraz claims that bridge is about all she has left – apart from her grandson.  She has her sights set on the Seniors Bridge Tournament Cup!  Morris can’t stand Liraz, nor, really, can Minnie, but when she realises that Liraz has this unmarried grandson, the old matchmaker comes out and Minnie is prepared to make a deal.  (Fortunately, no knowledge of the game of bridge is required to follow the action.)

The Autumn Road Retirement Village, according to the program and Ms Katz’ intention, is in Melbourne’s Caulfield – or the shtetl as some Jewish friends call it – so, that, plus the names of the characters, means that it’s a Jewish retirement village and Minnie and Morris Cohen and Liraz Weinberger are all old Jews of a particular generation.  Indeed, the rhythms and ironic humour of Jewish speech are there in the text, but not, perhaps unfortunately, in the performances.  It doesn’t ruin the show – far from it – it’s just means a layer of a sort of seen-it-all philosophical irony is missing from the tone. 

By contrast with the A-plot bridge tournament, what we really care about and what is, really, funnier, is the burgeoning romance between Minnie’s granddaughter, Rachel (Virginia Gay), and Liraz’ grandson, Ichabod (Peter Paltos).  Set up in the clever writing, Rachel and Ichabod are unmatchable, ‘odd’ misfits.  Rachel, a primary school head mistress, with zero self-esteem, is convinced she’s a loser in love, and Ichabod, an apparently humourless introvert theoretical physicist.  But equally we are engaged by Ms Gay and Mr Paltos.  Mr Paltos plays a solemn, shy, Jewish bookworm nerd and then cracks that impression apart with a killer, wolfish smile when he sees Rachel.  The character could be a cliché, but Mr Paltos makes him very funny and touching too.  Ms Gay, it seems, can do anything: she does television, where she’s the most interesting character whatever the show; she does music theatre, where she sings superbly and plucks heartstrings; and here she does comedy with perfect timing and her reactions tell us as much as the lines.  Rachel and Ichabod’s dialogues, for instance, about ‘melancholy films’ and ‘nature walks – in the rain’ are a delight.

The retirement village is presided over by Norma (Georgina Naidu) who is resolutely ‘positive’ and cheerful even when she feels anything but.  It’s her job to keep things on the up and up – always.  That includes her efforts to keep the inmates active, involved and looking on the bright side.  When someone dies, the passing is marked by a ‘Life Celebration’ not a weepy wake.  She’s desperately trying to rope people into her ‘Memoir’ group where they’ll tell the story of their lives.  This seems like it could be no more than a running gag, but it pays off in a way that provides some of the best – and non-comic – writing in the show.  Ms Naidu brings all her natural vitality and lovability to the role, but lets us see the effort that her character must make every day.  Norma has other hidden selves too and sometimes they break out. 

Director Anne-Louise Sarks has definitely gone for humour, both verbal and physical – verging on slapstick - at every possible opportunity, departing from ‘naturalism’ with great confidence.  Liraz’ mobility scooter, brilliantly driven about by Ms Jones, is a wonder to behold and gets a lot of laughs itself.  How many hours rehearsal did that take?  Cast not involved in the main action at any point play other village inmates – a clever and often blackly humorous touch that makes us forget that a whole retirement village is being created by six actors.

Mostly brief scenes breeze through, marked by a turn of the revolving stage.  A revolve can kill a show with its hiatuses but not here.  Designer Mel Page puts a corridor between the two bright but sterile beige sides, so that action continues, linking one scene to the next.  Matt Scott’s lighting too eschews naturalism.  We go from the bright fluoroes of the bland village interiors to reds and greens reflecting the characters’ heightened emotions.  Of particular note is Stefan Gregory’s knowing, ironic music: at times breezily moving the story along, at others deliberately, self-consciously melodramatic – in ironic contrast to what is actually happening.

Minnie & Lirazis hardly a work of great depth and substance (at times it can be superior sit-com – and that’s not as easy as it looks), but it is cleverly plotted (except perhaps for a surprise ending that feels just a little forced) and constantly witty and amusing.  Ms Katz gives us these characters with warmth and sympathy but also instinctive economy; she makes exquisite choices of telling details, revealing each at just the right time and so she is able to open sudden windows into those hidden selves.  Some may be inclined to dismiss this show as shallow or contrived, but it is a good example of the art than conceals art.

Reservations and niggles aside, the play survives and comes shining through, and the audience has a marvellous time.  At the end, Ms Katz and Ms Sarks joined the cast onstage to thunderous, well-earned applause.

Michael Brindley  

Images: Nancye Hayes and Virginia Gay; Virginia Gay, Peter Paltos, Georgina Naidu, Sue Jones and Nancye Hayes; & Sue Jones, Georgina Naidu and Nancye Hayes. Photographer: Jeff Busby. 

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