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The Age

Playing up the brawl in the family

Author: Greg Burchall
Date: 26/06/2006
Words: 837
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Metro
Page: 14
Tony McNamara has drawn up generational sides in his new comedy, says Greg Burchall.

EDWARD ALBEE, the uncompromising American playwright of such acid-inked dramas as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Three Tall Women and The Goat or Who is Sylvia? was adopted as a baby by millionaires but left home in his late teens.

Of his luxurious but emotionally empty upbringing he has said: "They weren't very good at being parents and I wasn't very good at being a son. I'm just sorry I turned out not to be what they thought they had bought."

Tony McNamara, whose own cringe-inducing comedies about "our relations" have earned him a popular place in Australian theatre, was about to go into a masterclass with Albee in Sydney last week.

"He's my favourite ever," he says, wanting to hear more about the way having families tear at each other creates theatrical fireworks.

"Families are good for writers. Great for comedy. Lots of conflict and issues that you can't easily walk away from. Attraction and repulsion. They drive you crazy but you're stuck with them.

"Previously, I've looked at the parents - I was a kid for a long time - but now that I'm a parent, I'm interested in looking at the children, looking at questions from both sides."

For his latest play, The Give and Take, McNamara has drawn up generational sides between Don, an executive and company lifer whose wife has just shot through, and his three self-absorbed, greedhead progeny. Their lifestyles need not change if Don just continues in his Good Provider role.

Can a generation who toiled in the same, safe place for their working life, telling their kids to "follow their dreams", ever deal with the fact they may have betrayed themselves?

It's a question McNamara asks because he comes from a large happy family where dad worked 30 years for the same company. Yet in his mid-20s, McNamara quit the money market to wait tables and take up writing, first at RMIT and then at the AFTRS.

His first play, The Cafe Latte Kid (1994), was used as the basis for his first film as writer-director, The Rage in Placid Lake (2003), in which a mixed-up youngster turns corporate to "rebel" against his New Age parents.

McNamara sees another shift from his own generation (he's 38), which opted out of the 20-year job journey, to the new one, which is "very conservative and very focused on dealing with the world as they perceive it" rather than trying to change it through idealism.

"And what will I be telling my six-year-old?" he asks. "I've just started thinking about the differences between the generations and the conflicts between them, the sense of selflessness that an earlier generation had and what that had cost them and whether that was a good thing anyway.

"In The Give and Take, Don realises perhaps he didn't do as good a job as he thought he did."

Don is played by Garry McDonald, who was also the floundering patriarch of Placid Lake. McNamara admits he wrote the new play for the adroit actor-comedian, although he didn't tell him "in case it was a complete botch".

"I think people underestimate what a brilliant actor he is, perhaps because they have such a strong idea of him in Mother and Son or as Norman Gunston," he says.

"We're very similar in the way we approach things to find the way they work in a comic way so that you get both the truth and the laugh. He can be very big with his comedy, but also quiet and sardonic, which really meshes well with my style."

It was seeing McDonald in a production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross almost 20 years ago that led McNamara to say, "That's what I want to do."

Letting a play go is easier when you have really good theatre actors you can trust, he says. "In the end it's their show. With film, even though you hand over a lot of technical and creative stuff to other people, you do actually feel more in control of each bit of it."

Not that he plans to follow Mamet into full-time filmmaking just yet.

"Films take so long to develop and the last three or four years have been a disaster. Even people who'd been around for 30 years were surprised with how bad things got. I think the industry is coming out of its slump, although comedies are death at the moment, not the thing funding bodies or anyone wants to fund. There was a lot of money from places that funded a lot of comedy that just wasn't funny, so we're going to have to suffer that for a bit."

The Give and Take is at the Arts Centre Playhouse until July 29.

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