‘Why Young Men Run At 2am’ was quaint.
Ad Astra presents a new work by playwright and director Pierce Gordon. ‘Why Young Men Run At 2am’ is a mystery comedy set at a not-so-glamourous pawn shop in Brisbane.
The piece is set entirely in one room with five scenes over two acts, aiming to capture a snapshot of the life of protagonist Terry “TJ” Schmidt Jr. as he attempts to piece together what happened to his missing father.
The story is set over the course of a few days as TJ returns home to his father’s pawn shop after working as a travelling salesperson on behalf of the company for several years. Alongside his father’s right-hand man Knoll, and rookie employee Maureen, the three of them attempt to find out what happened to Terry Schmidt Sr. and save the business (which has also just been robbed).
Gordon’s script is almost entirely dialogue-driven, with a few key moments of physical humour. While there is a plot driving the story forward, the focus lies more on the characters and their interpersonal relationships, with the mystery of Terry Sr.’s disappearance being more of a catalyst than the actual crux of the play. Thematically, the play is a coming-of-age story for TJ, as he struggles with his identity as the son of a man who was popular in the community but, by his account, a lacklustre father.
TJ’s relationship with his father’s right-hand man Knoll is a big driving force of the piece. Knoll can only sing the praises of Terry Sr. while TJ can only reflect on his father’s shortcomings. Unfortunately, while TJ’s arc had a strong resolution that also tied in nicely with Maureen, Knoll’s never fully got there. Whether this was a conscious choice by Gordon or not, it left Knoll with a bit less third dimension than his counterparts.
Comedically, the script lagged a little in its first act but thrived in the second, which is certainly preferable to the other way round. The first act was mostly a slice-of-life drama-comedy, and it contained some compelling monologues and entertaining comedic threads, but occasionally scenes would go for lengthy stretches with little narrative progression. The second act was much more effectively paced, leaned more into the absurd and embraced the farcical nature of its conspiracy plot, with interrogations, a femme fatale, fighting, romance and more. At its core though, the second act was still a work of realism. For every moment of absurdity Gordon always brought the focus back to the characters and their relationships.
The set looked exactly like a pawn shop that had just been robbed. Gordon and his crew absolutely nailed the local aesthetic and it was a surprise to learn that Gordon didn’t grow up in Brisbane. The set felt lived in, like a once-thriving business populated instead with half-empty shelves and an old TV.
On a technical level, the piece was as ambitious as it needed to be. The lights went up at the start of a scene and down at the end of a scene, anything more than that would have impacted the slice-of-life storytelling approach. The stage at the Ad Astra theatre is intimate and close to the audience, which allowed the actors to get away with some more subtle expressions and deliveries that led to a lot of the biggest laughs of the show.
The audience responded with laughter when a performer would drop their voice and deliver a sardonic line half under their breath, something they may not have been able to do at another venue.
Caitlin Hill, who played Maureen, utilised this for all it was worth and managed to draw a lot of humour from simple, understated expressions that wonderfully contrasted with her otherwise intensely high-strung characterisation.
TJ was brought to life by Lachlan Engeler, who balanced the character’s less likable attributes with some solid humour and an effective straight-man routine compared to those around him.
Knoll was portrayed by Tom Coyle, who is given the most comedic material. His physical comedic timing was excellent, however, his vocal delivery throughout the piece went at a breakneck pace and words were often lost in his inflections. Indeed, this delivery tended to influence the speed at which every line was spoken.
In keeping up with Coyle, Engeler could sometimes end up losing clarity too, and some of the wittier one-liners and back-and-forths between the two were not given the necessary breathing time to land. Like the rest of the show, this improved in the second act.
As Maureen, Caitlin Hill also spoke quite quickly but this was clearly a conscious decision that was consistent with the neurotic traits the character embodied. In a cast of oddballs, she was easily the oddest ball. Even so, Hill was also given the chance to show off her dramatic chops, and arguably displayed the most range of the entire cast.
The cast is rounded out by Aurelie Roque as Colleen, who does not appear until late into the second act and has the convenient job of only being in the funniest scene of the show. Roque was slick and amusing and injected a fresh new energy into the piece when she entered. One wishes she had more to do but she makes a meal out of her limited stage time and every other performer seemed to lift their game when she was on as well. Most of the biggest audience laughs came from the scene Roque was in, with every actor getting at least one laugh-out-loud line.
There is something to be said about a piece that doesn’t attempt to reel you in with flashy set pieces or technical grandiosity, that instead lets its script, actors and situations stand for themselves. ‘Why Young Men Run At 2am’ almost feels like an Australian comedy of manners, a drawing room comedy a la ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’
It may not hold attention the entire time, but ‘Why Young Men Run At 2am’ feels like it could have been plucked right out of a real-life scene in a local pawn shop, with a sense of humour that derives itself from the eccentricities of actual Brisbane residents. Criticisms aside, it’s always worth seeing a new, local piece that can capture a bit of our reality.
‘Why Young Men Run At 2am’ performs until Saturday, 22 October 2022 at Ad Astra. For more information visit Ad Astra’s website.