The Truth (Melbourne Theater Company)
After a big start, the Melbourne Theater Company’s 2021 season turned lukewarm with this fourth release of the year. Surprisingly, because La Vérité is by French playwright of the day Florian Zeller, best known for Le Père. This clever drama was co-presented by MTC and Sydney Theater Company in 2017, and recently adapted into the Oscar-winning film of the same name. The Truth is comedy, but it’s not particularly funny – at least this Australian debut production isn’t for this reviewer. The other spectators had a good laugh on opening night, which goes to show that comedy is all about taste.
This 90-minute quasi-farce on two middle-aged couples takes place in Paris. Michel has an affair with Alice, the wife of his best friend Paul. Laurence suspects Michel, her husband, of being unfaithful – or perhaps she knows it and is biding her time, playing with him. Scene by scene, it quickly becomes clear that the uncertainty of who knew what when, and the murky morality of lying and withholding information from friends and lovers, is what the play sets in motion.
Like Zeller’s other offerings, The Truth is translated by Christopher Hampton (who shared the Father’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar with the Frenchman). The 2016 season in London received a five-star review from The Guardian, among other very positive reviews, so the humor probably hasn’t been lost in the translation. It could be that this Sarah Giles-led production will improve over time, given that the cast of four had to start rehearsals on Zoom due to the recent lockdown.
The comedy will never really click, however, because these Parisians are straight out of the Australian suburbs. It might sound funny on paper, which is probably why actors from film and TV comedies like The Castle and Upper Middle Bogan were chosen. This approach also adds another layer to the play’s willful deception. However, while Zeller’s repetition of words, phrases, and storylines can take on a comedic rhythm when presented with sophisticated French restraint, most of the time we get an Australian style of humor that works under those repetitions. .
This is especially the case with Stephen Curry’s Michel, the central character who often uses delaying tactics including hijacking and alleged inattentiveness to muddy the waters of the conversation, and is prone to hypocritical outrage. A bunch of twitches, and sometimes breaking the fourth wall, Curry tries hard to make humor work but is ultimately more irritating than funny.
In contrast, Bert LaBonté plays Paul with understated humor – so it’s no coincidence that he delivered the funniest moment of the night. Katrina Milosevic (Alice) and Michala Banas (Laurence) almost play their characters directly – indeed, with a silent expression of grief in the final moments of The Truth, Banas reveals the tragedy that lurks beneath the surface of the comedy. It is the one moment of indisputable truth in the midst of all the lies.
Marg Horwell’s increasingly open and fake ensemble underscores The Truth’s deception. The real refrigerator from the first scene becomes an obviously light prop at the end. Two hotel rooms in different cities are, as the script playfully points out, almost identical. A doctor’s office is represented by a generic image on two partitions, powered by machinists who appear over and over again, emphasizing the idea that what we are seeing is not real. Even one of Horwell’s costumes turns out to be fake, so to speak, in a funny gag.
The truth certainly has fun times, and for some there will be plenty. However, for a safe bet on smart comedy, see MTC’s other current production, The Lifespan of a Fact, which has had its heart ripped out of its season by pandemic restrictions. It’s not to be missed, as The Truth misses the mark.
Melbourne Theater Company The truth is at the Sumner Theater, Melbourne, until July 17.