It’s easy to imagine that if Sam Brooks were a writer in the 1950s Hollywood he’d fit right in making screwball comedies. His latest play Twenty Eight Millimetres offers itself up, at first glance, as a modern gay romcom, and the perfect vehicle for Brooks to show off his knack for whip-smart one-liners and I-wish-I-talked-like-this-in-real-life dialogue.
It first presents itself as a simple boy-meets-boy love story. University students Justin (Dan Veint) and Ted (Geordie Holibar) meet at a party, there’s some throwing up, which then escalates to dating, and then, naturally, falling in love. Opposites attract: wealthy versus modest, energetic and spirited versus calm and collected, unexpected princess and prince charming. The trajectory and tropes are well worn, but the cliches are given a refreshing treatment under Brooks’ keen observations.
His writing is particularly astute in juxtaposing dialogue with direct address, showing the contradictions between characters’ inner and outer selves and allowing Rashomon-esque perspective shifts. Ethan (Tim Earl), Justin’s younger brother and our quasi-narrator, is also formed in this space, existing as both naive onlooker and omniscient observer. Director Sam Snedden’s minimalist staging plays with this duality beautifully, the characters always on the blurry edges of on and off-stage, set against a backdrop saturated in splashes of blue and celluloid imprints.
This filmic reference is a loving touch and tribute to Justin’s own predilection towards film. It’s a character trait that paints him in such vivid detail, with astounding specificity to references, that even the less savvy will get a sense of (but cinephiles will love). It’s also the dominating bond between Justin and Ethan, more than just a simple hobby, which gives them a deep, tangible history. Veint and Earl capture these little details with ease, and elevate the potentially quirky indie-movie characters to something live and breathing. Holibar has the toughest job playing the proverbial straight man. He’s rich, he’s handsome, he’s understanding. He’s perfect. It’s a role that Holibar wears comfortably, without cockiness, making him more affable than he has any right to be, though never overcoming the limitations of his characterisation.
But on second glance? The play’s more melancholy undercurrent turns it into something more than just another romcom. It asks us what the metrics of measuring happiness are. What the difference between looking happy and being happy is. The subjectivity and impossibility of fathoming such things.
It’s also the play’s attempts to be more than another romcom that pushes it dangerously close to melodrama. The latter half of the play shifts into much darker territory, trading its conversational tone for something more dramatic. The beats that Brooks fills the story with give a serious weight and tone to the characters’ arcs, but feel slightly heavy-handed and at odds with the gentleness of the preceding text. It is as if the foundations of the play he starts with aren’t strong enough to support the breadth of his ideas, so he opts to change the play completely. The plot thickens, but so quickly and unnaturally that it doesn’t give us time to see the characters change too.
Twenty Eight Millimetres doesn’t draw special attention to itself for being a queer story, and that’s part of the charm. There are no traumatic or fraught coming outs. It’s first and foremost a love story, and it happens to be between men. It occasionally missteps in trying to say too much, but at its best it illuminates the multitudes that exist within a moment, within the space of words and within people.
Twenty Eight Millimetres plays at The Basement until 17 February as part of Auckland Pride.