By Rochelle Bright
Directed by Conrad Newport
Presented by Bullet Heart Club
Q Theatre, Auckland | July 24-Aug 8
The Deliberate Disappearance of My Friend, Jack Hartnett was never going to reach the same heights of the Bullet Heart Club’s incredible debut Daffodils, which not only received unanimously great reviews but deserved it too. It was a show that everyone agreed was a smashing success on every level, instantly making its claim as a Kiwi classic. But it still pains me to say that their latest offering to the Auckland theatre scene is every inch a disappointment. For everything that Daffodils did right, Jack Hartnett does wrong. It might seem like a lazy and reductive description, but it’s also an accurate one.
Rochelle Bright’s script deals with storytelling in a similar way she did in Daffodils, having the characters of Oliver and Jack (both played by Todd Emerson) directly address the audience. But where this technique was used to playful effect in the former, here it comes off somewhat lackluster, giving the impression of a novel on stage rather than a play.
At its core, Jack Hartnett lacks a beating heart, replacing it with cheap and easy misanthropy. The problem isn’t that it’s aiming to be dark, but that the darkness never feels earned. The honest emotional truths in Daffodils are sorely absent here, resulting in a script that plays out like an ill-conceived homage to Chuck Palahniuk. Sure, it might be edgy and gritty, but it’s all surface with nothing on the inside.
To make matters worse, the entire conceit of the play makes absolutely no sense. Two men, Oliver and Jack work at the same office. Their connection is tenuous at best, but the former becomes obsessed with the latter’s disappearance and connects with him online. While the premise isn’t bad, it’s never given much explanation or reason to occur. That and the relationship just isn’t explored convincingly enough. The blueprint for the story is flawed and the execution exhaustingly convoluted, so the show can’t hope to do anything but crumble under its own foundations.
As Oliver, Emerson slips into the mode of this jaded 21st century office worker with ease. It’s a cool performance peppered with dry, sardonic humour. However, the role as written lacks originality, his defining characteristics feel all too familiar. He’s a character we’ve all seen before, but Emerson does do his darnest to make it his own, and you can’t help but admire him for trying.
Jack, on the other hand, is the embodiment of a pathetic sad sack with little to no redeeming features. And that’s the point, apparently. But it doesn’t make for particularly inspired viewing. Every time the character is on stage (which is a lot) the play sinks into inertia. Even once the cards fall into place and the audience has a better understanding of the character he never feels anything but one-dimensional. It’s no surprise Emerson has difficulty portraying his character here, given he has nothing to work with.
The music and lyrics, despite being moody pop-rock riffs in their own right, never manage to feel like an integral part of the production. I hate to compare it to Daffodils again, but where the former show managed to weave the iconic Kiwi songs into its story seamless, here the original tracks by Abraham Kunin, ironically, feel shoehorned in. The music does lend the show some necessary energy, though, injecting theatricality and pathos into some dull moments, even if they seem disconnected to the story. Also, they are some of the few times that Emerson, as singer, gets to have some fun.
Director Conrad Newport has done well to create a murky underbelly with the help of Jane Hakaraia’s film noir lighting, Daniel Williams’s spare set, and Tom Anderson’s evocative soundscape. But, while it looks and sounds good, the script never manages to sit comfortably on the stage.
You don’t need to see Jack Hartnett. It’s a shallow show that struggles to capture the nuances of urban alienation and existential dread, leaving you feeling depressed for all the wrong reasons. If there’s one thing I can say to the Bullet Heart’s Club’s credit, their second show is anything but safe and is as far away from Daffodils as you can imagine, and that’s something to be admired. It’s a shame that the result is such an undeniable sophomore slump.