By Finnius Teppett
Directed by Jesse Hilford
Basement Theatre, Auckland | March 3-7
The tradition of absurdist theatre is rare thing to witness on New Zealand stages, unless we’re lucky enough to have someone produce the odd Albee, Pinter or Beckett play. And while Finnius Teppett’s The Non-Surgeon’s Guide to the Appendectomy isn’t always successful in adhering to the conventions of absurdist theatre, it certainly owes a lot to it, and also helps to fill the gap.
Any attempts to explain the plot would be misleading and pointless. Suffice it to say, it’s the story of a young man who goes to stay with a young woman and strange things happen to him. Teppett’s script isn’t concerned with characters arcs or tying up loose ends. He is, first and foremost, a writer of clever dialogue and ideas. So what you should expect is lots of interesting and uncomfortable conversations, as well as eerie interactions. The characters talk circles around themselves and each other, shooting off in glorious tangents. Social niceties are skewered and flipped on their head as characters discuss the most obscure topics (from the necessity of an appendectomy to hostility of hosts), avoiding anything that could forward the non-existent plot.
As soon as you enter the Basement studio upstairs you will be find the space transformed into the living room of a Kiwi bach, infused with surreal touches. The floor, covered in sand, is literally displaced from reality. And while the set doesn’t ever strictly change, it operates on several levels to convey multiple spaces and locations. The fact that everything is cramped together only works in its favour. The overall design by Christine Urquhart is the most assured aspect of the production, feeling completely in tune with the script.
The performances have the difficult job of trying to sell the absurdist elements of the script. Often the actors are trying too hard to convince us of this reality, rather than believing it themselves. As Neil, Chris Bryan has the toughest task, acting as audience surrogate. He makes for a likable enough straight man, especially in the first act, but never reaches the extremes the script requires of him. More neurotic than anxiety-inducing, he feels too comfortable in what should be a Kafkaesque nightmare, despite the chaotic final moments of the play.
Kevin Harty as Frank, the salesman, makes for an effectively intrusive stranger, offering Neil the titular appendectomy—or auto-appendectomy book, to be specific. It’s an effective plot device, for a basically plotless play, giving the story a much needed sense of dread. But his return as Grant, the travel agent, is far less effective. The duality of the role works as an additional bizarre element, but his second appearance lacks the punch of his previous. If anything, the scenes with Grant move the slowest in the play, dragging out the last act.
Last but not least, Esmée Myers as Jackie switches back and forth between unexpected moods with terrifying ease. And is enigmatic in the best way possible. That she feels most at home in the role is a testament not only to Myers but to the writing too. The character is like permanent trapping of the bach, and her purpose never feels questioned, giving her the freedom to work with the script rather than against it. Lines are often delivered in a cadence you don’t quite expect, rather than adhering to any obvious comedic or naturalistic manner. Her performance during her late-night drinking scene is particularly captivating, conveying domestic menace that would make Pinter proud.
While Jesse Hilford’s work as director is highly efficient, the final product of the show seems to prioritise the comedic over the absurd. It works, but the harder and darker elements of the script are watered down. It’s the moments of discomfort that are the most effective, forcing us to navigate a minefield of uncertainty. The rest of the time it feels too carefully alienating, like watching a self-conscious sitcom—albeit a very funny one. Though it aspires to mindfuck the audience, the result is more like an enjoyable mindwank. Very good, but not quite the real thing.
If I seem overly critical, it’s only because the play dabbles in so many things I love. The fundamental issue with it is an ineffective mixture of various tones, both within the script and within the production. But the talent at hand is obvious. Teppett, for one thing, has enough wit and imagination to make any playwright green with envy. The accomplishments of the cast and crew, in creating a highly engaging evening of theatre, are also well worth emphasising. After all, any team that can competently tackle a new script with difficult absurdist elements deserves our full attention. The Non-Surgeon’s Guide to the Appendectomy might ultimately play it too safe, but it leaves the audience with a lot to chew on. For all my reservations, it comes with an enthusiastic recommendation.