Social interactions can be a little daunting. Some people have innate well-polished social decorum, some of us get by, and a few unfortunate others stuff up every time they open their mouths.
Odd Man Out by Australia’s celebrated playwright David Williamson makes a hero out of anti-hero Ryan (Daniel Janks), rendered socially inept by Asperger’s syndrome. Now called autism spectrum disorder, it’s a condition that makes the highly intelligent quantum physicist Ryan a social stumblebum.
This delightful comedy has Ryan bumble his way into a relationship with Alice (Ashleigh Harvey), a bubbly woman who fears her maternal clock is about to chime time out on her chance of motherhood.
This joy of a script manages to be funny, insightful and sympathetic simultaneously. We’re not laughing at Ryan, nor with him, since he’s rarely capable of getting the jokes, but we’re laughing because we love him.
Janks is unbelievably good as this genius-idiot, with a constant nervous rattling of one hand, eyebrows that are forever hunting for a safer place to sit, and an awkwardness to his entire body even as his words gush in great long sentences when he’s spouting forth about his favourite subjects. He’s a heap of nervous wobbles and jiggles, giving us visual as well as aural comedy.
What makes Odd Man Out such a watchable, worthwhile play is the melding together of so many strengths. The dialogue flows fabulously, with real conversations between real if somewhat quirky people.
Another shining light is Harvey, who plays Alice with a perfect mixture of enthusiasm, exasperation and perplexity. She gives her character a big heart, and has the savvy to know how long to pause when the script unleashes its stop-the-action-while-we-laugh one-liners.
Clanging sound effects serve as warning bells as they stumble through their excruciating first date and the relationship deepens, but Alice is determined to make it work: first from a desperate lack of alternatives, but soon from her deepening love for this odd man out. The script cleverly makes her a physiotherapist, so she has a natural rescue instinct to draw upon.
Michèle Levin and Russel Savadier breeze in and out as other characters, each time capturing the role beautifully. Levin is gorgeous as Carla, the leggy glamorous friend, then ages herself dramatically to play Ryan’s elderly mother, gripping a walker and fiercely defending her special son.
Savadier is stern and protective as Alice’s father, then morphs into Carla’s boyfriend, an advertising executive who suffers one of Ryan’s tactless diatribes for promoting things that people don’t want or need.
Director Megan Willson has done an excellent job in creating the pace and mood, giving the characters space and time to grow and interact. Although it was originally set in Australia the action has switched to South Africa, so we don’t have to endure dodgy accents and it feels closer to our hearts.
The different scenes flow seamlessly around unmoving white blocks that act as tables and chairs. Stark, but functional, as they allow the action to unfold with as few inhibitions as a passionate speech from Ryan.
Williamson captures the traits of autism superbly, giving Ryan a brilliant mind that just doesn’t function according to social norms. You can interpret the results as rude and arrogant, or merely honest and guileless. Brilliant, or retarded.
One wonderful scene has Alice trying to teach social etiquette by using colours and numbers to identify how he’s feeling, and secret codes to guide his conversation. It’s hilarious, but deeply saddening too, as Ryan tries to steer his way through the channel of socially acceptable behaviour instead of colliding with it. When the poor man finally cracks his pain crunches deeply into us, as a society that expects what he doesn’t have inside himself to give. Maybe we are the ones who need to change our expectations.
What makes Odd Man Out such a pearl of a play is that both Williamson and Janks clearly love their oddball character, which grounds it as an affectionate comedy as it questions humanity and what we expect from each other. DM
Odd Man Out runs at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square until 20 October 20. Tickets at Computicket.
All Photos by Philip Kuhn
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