Giving up the bottle in a country where the rate of alcoholism is among the highest in the developed world is no laughing matter, that is unless you’re playwright Brendan Cowell, whose year of self-imposed sobriety inspired the thoroughly entertaining dark dramatic comedy Ruben Guthrie, the second half of the rotating-rep double-bill that marks the welcome return of Los Angeles’s Australian Theatre Company.
Hotshot Sydney ad exec Ruben (Nathan Sapsford) would seem to have it all. GQ-cover looks. A thriving career. A supportive boss. A swanky apartment. Loving albeit divorced parents. A supermodel girlfriend. A devoted best mate.
But Ruben’s also got an addiction to anything that gets him high—liquor, coke, pills …
You name it, Ruben’s done it, and loved every second of it, that is until a celebratory booze-and-drug-fueled leap from balcony to kiddies’ wading pool results in both a broken arm and a wake-up call that, along with his Czech girlfriend Zoya’s (Sasha Yegorova) decision to bid him adieu, sends Ruben rather unwillingly to a substance abuse support group.
Not that our hero’s got any kind of serious drinking/drug problem, or so he insists. In fact, all Ruben is willing to admit at his first meeting is that “My name is Ruben Guthrie and I am … in advertising.”
As any recovering drunk, reformed druggie, or ex-smoker will tell you, without the support of family and non-drinking, non-drugging, non-smoking friends, an addict’s recovery is pretty much shot from the get-go, or so Ruben discovers as everyone around him seems bent on keeping him hooked.
His boss Ray (Shane Connor) may have gone on the wagon himself, but, he asks, what kind of ad exec would Ruben be without booze to lubricate his clients?
His best chum Damian (Nick Hardcastle) can’t conceive of their friendship without shared cocktails (and maybe a bit of E) over which to bond.
Even his mom Susan (Vivienne Powell) insists Ruben join her in a glass of wine if only to prove that her golden boy doesn’t have a problem.
As for Virginia (Olivia Simone), Ruben’s new-agey sponsor-turned-girlfriend, the hippy-dippy blonde can’t seem to utter a word that doesn’t seem Twelve Steps-inspired.
One of playwright Cowell’s many gifts is to make us laugh even as we find our hearts breaking for Ruben, and with the ever so likeable Sapsford in the title role, as douchey as the man can be (and that’s pretty darned douchey), we can’t help but care for this handsome, sexy, utterly lost soul.
Credit director Peter Blackburn for ensuring that his cast hit all the right notes, with bonus points for his leap of faith in casting former Australian MTV VJ Sapsford (think Ryan Seacrest Down Under) in his very first play. Centerstage throughout, Sapsford’s pitch-perfect Ruben charms, delights, infuriates, and moves us in equal measure.
Supporting players provide expert support, most notably Hardcastle’s flaming dazzler of a Damian. (It says something about the very hetero Ruben that he has the gayest blade in Sydney as his best bloke.) Powell’s deliciously dry Susan, Paterson’s painfully real lush of a Peter, and Simone’s gloriously gaga Virginia are all winners, and Ukrainian acting neophyte Yegorova shows promise (if not yet her costars’ refined acting chops).
Only in a scene of drug-and-drink debauchery does Ruben Guthrie go over the top, though perhaps I haven’t spent enough time with heavy-drinking druggies to know the difference between authentic and exaggerated.
The Cinemascope-wide Matrix Theatre stage works as well for Ruben Guthrie as it does for the concurrently running Speaking In Tongues, the identical design team—John Iacovelli, sets; Jared A. Sayeg, lighting; Cricket S. Myers, sound; and Kate Bergh, costumes—ensuring the look, sound, and rapid scene changes that a play as cinematic as Ruben Guthrie requires and deserves.
Ruben Guthrie is produced by Jackie Diamond, Nick Hardcastle, Nate Jones, and Joshua Thornton for Australian Theatre Company. Diamond is assistant director. Rebecca Eisenberg is stage manager and Quinn Pickering is assistant stage manager. Damian Sommerlad (Ruben/Damian) and Maria Volk are understudies.
Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking and raw and touching, Ruben Guthrie kept me entertained, engrossed, and invested in its flawed but entirely human hero from its engaging start to its edge-of-your-seat finish.
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.
June 7, 2016
Photos: Suzanne Strong