It’s all about the booze, the beer, the ‘caine, and the pills, with the accompanying sickness of hangover, not to mention stupid, risky behavior and, ultimately, self-destruction. The title character in the Australian Theatre Company’s Ruben Guthrie (magnetic Nathan Sapsford), an ad man with a quirky imagination, shows up on stage battered and bruised with an arm in a sling that got broken in a stunt of drunken bravado. At a rooftop party, Ruben launched himself over the edge thinking to splash land in a hotel pool. His furry brain couldn’t tell that it was, instead, a shallow kids’ wading pool. Seated in a metal folding chair, he begins, “My name is Ruben Guthrie, and I am…Here!” — a slight mockery of the traditional beginning of an AA confession. The AA meeting is a repeated set piece in Brendan Cowell’s searing, funny, and affecting play.
Ruben works as the Creative Director of a company called “Subliminal.” He is a loose cannon wunderkind who comes up with successful, off-the-wall ideas. His boss, Ray (gruff Shane Connor) prizes him, but when Ruben goes off the sauce, his creativity falters. He also loses his young, beautiful fiancée Zoya (svelte, lovely Sasha Yegorova), a fashion model.
The path to permanent sobriety is not helped by his close friend, Damian, a flamboyantly gay enabler played by understudy Damian Sommerlad in a balls-to-the-wall performance, or his father (David Ross Paterson), an alky in denial, never seen without a wine glass or flask. Even his otherwise sober mother (Vivienne Powell) tries to tempt him with a glass of white wine to show that he has beaten the problem. Salvation seems to come in the form of fellow AA member Virginia (beguiling understudy Maria Volk), a brittle user who becomes Ruben’s AA counselor.
With a sterling cast of seasoned performers, director Peter Blackburn has crafted a very entertaining evening of theatre, with crisp action and powerful emotions and no little amount humor. What all this has to say about the alcoholic culture of Australia is hard to know. Rumor has it that drink is a problem down under, but is it any more of a problem there than here? Or in Great Britain, or Germany? ¿Quien sabe?
Like the other half of The Australian Theatre’s Double Feature, Speaking in Tongues, Ruben Guthrie shares a flexible set with double turntables designed by John Iacovelli, lit by Jared Sayeg. Cricket Meyers created the sound design and Kate Bergh did the costumes.
Ruben Guthrie performs in rotating rep with Speaking in Tongues through July 2 at The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.