Jerry And Tom – The character that has character. (Theatre review)

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Jerry and Tom

Insomniac Theatre

The Exchange Hotel, 9 April to 30 April, you can grab tickets here.

Photos by GiGee Photography

Note: Rick Cleveland has kindly left some great comments below, which greatly contribute to my review and reviewing in general. Please be sure to read them.

Rick Cleveland wrote Jerry and Tom in 1998, obviously heavily under the influence of  Quentin Tarantino (whose Pulp Fiction was written a couple of years earlier) Harold Pinter and David Mamet. One can easily imagine the young playwright, one of those infamous Iowa alumni, scribbling away between late night drunken Tarantino gorge-fests on his fancy fresh VCR when he’d watch/pause/watch/pause Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction till the tape wore out, a dog-eared copy of The Dumb Waiter by his side. He’s exactly that right age surfing slightly ahead of the tsunami of young men wanting to write in this style, when the long-suffering writers workshop teachers would eventually try to halt the oceanic hoards doing nothing other than recreating Vince Vega and subsequently Jules Winnfield when the previous well was … well and truly dry. Someone eventually whispered in Cleveland’s ear that good writing is fresh writing, and to his credit he listened, and went on to write for TV HBO’s series Six Feet Under and The West Wing, using all that acquired skill to build something worth celebrating.

Fast forward to 2015, seventeen years after that first script written under the eccentric glow of that youthful white middle class can-do, to Jerry and Tom currently being performed by Insomniac theatre at The Exchange Hotel in Balmain. Savvy director (and producer) Maggie Scott is well aware of the plays heritage and its contemporary irony, bringing us a version of Jerry and Tom that gleefully languishes in its ironic roots rather than takes itself too seriously. She adds little touches like music from the aforementioned films, but adds tunes from the likes of TV’s Dexter to impose the boxed in tightness of the TV writers future – a future he could only have dreamed of when he wrote Jerry and Tom. She also includes old-fashioned soft porn girly pin ups as the only female presence in this surreal, hyper masculine world, except for one poignant moment when she includes a woman’s groaning voice as she dies. It’s a deeply clever approach to an exhausted concept that rescues Jerry and Tom from being just another played out gangster show making the Sydney circuit.

If there is a problem with this concept, it is that it is a little too underplayed. The way Scott brings women into a women-free-zone unfortunately has to combat the already existing complacency in the audience that “naturally” accepts a woman-free-zone, and therefore these subtleties can get missed, which is a shame because the very best thing about Jerry and Tom is this fresh and ironic approach. In her liner notes Maggie Scott makes it clear that she abhors violence and she does bring this out in the direction, but it has to be searched for in the perpetual rabble of homage Cleveland plays to his heroes. Scott has moulded her actors in a similar vein, playing on their warmth more than the excessive violence the play requires, leaving the audience questioning the nature of the masculine violent impulse, but equally giving of the idea that the characters are underwritten, rather than carefully manoeuvred by Scott. It would have been REALLY exciting to see Scott write the play herself, so she wasnt encumbered by Cleveland’s obviously inexperienced excesses, because in this case, the directors vision exceeds the playwrights ability.

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Still, Jerry and Tom remains a collection of fascinating vignettes that slowly piece together the five-year relationship of fellow guns for hire, Tom (Boris Brkic) and Jerry (Steve Maresca). The play opens with an impending murder and then hops back in time to the moment Tom enlists Jerry in his perverse occupation. We watch Jerry’s character develop through the years until the narrative places us back in the room with the two men and their future victim. Cleveland may have been young and highly impressionable when he wrote Jerry and Tom, but he was all over the skills he was developing, so that the script has great timing and pacing, keeping the short scenes sharp and engaging. The additional characters (usually those being bumped off) are played by the very talented Andrew Mead who has a great stage presence, can tear up on command, and has a beautifully projected voice. The three men are very different, with Brkic bringing a still maturity to the role of Tom with a voice filled with wit and wisdom against Maresca who has a delightfully expressive face that provides a crucial comic touch and has him stand up well against his more experienced counterparts. On the night I attended the scene changes were a little clunky, creating too great a pause in the narrative flow, but this is the sort of glitch that is swept away by repeat performances.

At its lightest and easiest to absorb, Jerry and Tom is great pub theatre, providing much to chat about and laugh about over beers with friends. At a deeper level, Jerry and Tom has some very interesting things to say about this style of writing and its place in Sydney in 2015.

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