The journey, not the destination [by James Wenley]
It struck me while watching Sam Brooks’ Riding in Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys how many moments of great (and small) personal drama burns out while stuck in an automobile. While Film loves to show wheels in motion, cars can be problematic to represent and rather static in action in a stage drama.
Brooks’ contemporary Jess Sayer recently set most of the action in Wings in a makeshift car in the Basement Studio, upping the dramatic stakes by forcing the characters together on a road trip. Brooks has opted for full Volkswagen verisimilitude by setting his play within an actual car (a silver hatchback to be precise), which can be found behind Te Papa for Wellington Fringe Festival this week, and outside The Basement for Auckland Pride the week after. That’s one way to achieve a great set. Though the car (borrowed from a cast member) remains stationary, the dramatic engine of the play purrs along.
Kyle (Dan Veint) has an open habit of falling for his straight guy friends, and makes sure he gets to spend time with them by accepting lifts from his obliging mates. Sometimes Kyle wants to go see some Water Polo matches, sometimes he needs to be picked up to get out of trouble, and sometimes he just wants to drive – anywhere. The script doesn’t spend any time stalling – we arrive on Kyle giving an upbeat confession to his best mate Jay (Calum Gittins) that he likes him “in a gay way”.
The hatchback is a self-sufficient “venue”, simply converted by technicians Sam Mence and Amber Malloy with two small interior lights and exterior speakers around it to boost the actors’ dialogue. My vantage point standing on the side of the car gave me a great view of Veint in the passenger’s seat while Gittins the driver was darker, less distinct as seen through the front window. This set-up lends itself to a smaller style of performance than the theatre, a concentration on intimacy and observed behaviours; at one moment Veint bites his seat-belt as an emotional reaction – nice attention to detail.
In contrast to this realist mode, Veint opens his door after each scene and comes round the front to chat to us in exuberant style about the men in his life, his hopes, his fears. It’s a mix of styles that works extremely well to keep our attention and warm to Kyle (though Kyle can be an over-sharer, confirming what we have already picked up from his car interactions), and also provides Gittins time to change into the costume of the next driver.
Veint’s Kyle – dressed in attention-grabbing tight black pants, knitted red cardigan (with cats) and blue highlights in his hair – is played with a mixture of chaotic self-interest and endearing vulnerability. We are invited to see the other men in the play as Kyle sees them – Jay, the straight up best mate, Mike, the macho dude with academic ambitions, Shane with the Scottish accent who is off overseas, and Trent, the square homosexual that Kyle dates for a turn. All played superbly by Gittins, he invests them with the various charms, appeals (and turn offs!) that Kyle finds in them. Gittins’ Trent deserves special mention for his faltering attempts at sealing the deal after their first date.
While it turns out one of the characters is not as straight as first thought, Brooks goes against what might conventionally be expected, and there is some rewarding character drama as to what this revelation does for Kyle’s perception of him, and what the seed of his attraction was to begin with. The ending is not as expected, but a perfect note of personal growth for Kyle. Sign-posting the play’s end more clearly for the Fringe and Pride audiences will help achieve the full emotional potential.
Riding in Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys is a credible insight into the emotional agonies of unrequited love and feeling like an outsider. Brooks’ script more than drives itself, but consider watching theatre happen in a car an exciting bonus, especially over these summer months.
Riding in Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys is presented by Smoke Labours Productions and plays at the NZ Fringe Festival in Wellington 6-11 February, and Auckland Pride at The Basement 13-15 February. James reviewed an Auckland preview.