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Eamon Farren, Sara West, Babyteeth Eamon Farren, Sara West, Babyteeth
photo Heidrun Löhr
FUSING THE LUCIDITY OF A PARABLE WITH THE UNNERVING REVERSALS OF EXPECTATION THAT MARK TRAGI-COMEDY, RITA KALNEJAIS’ BABYTEETH, DIRECTED BY EAMON FLACK, IS A BRACING EXPERIENCE, GRIMLY, IF SCABROUSLY, FUNNY, IMBUED WITH HEARTFELT MORAL PURPOSE AND FUELLED BY THE EMOTIONAL INTENSITY OF A FAMILY STRUGGLING TO COPE AS CANCER THREATENS TO BRING ONE OF THEM DOWN. BABYTEETH IS FUNNY AND MOVING, THE WORK OF A TALENTED EMERGING PLAYWRIGHT.

Babyteeth swings between a grieving present and flashbacks to events that brought each of the three family members in touch with an idiosyncratic personality who will allow them the possibility of transformation. At a railway station, 14-year-old middle class Milla (Sara West) encounters Moses (Eamon Farren), a tough but affable drug dealer in his early twenties. She takes him into her life and family home with surprising ease, his presence, intimacy and loyalty allowing the cancer-suffering Milla to realise independence and wisdom beyond her years. Just how she achieves it provides the alarming point on which Babyteeth turns.

Sara West, Babyteeth Sara West, Babyteeth
photo Heidrun Löhr
Milla’s over-caring, contrary mother, Anna (Helen Buday)—a pill-popping bundle of nerves—tangles with her daughter’s eccentric Latvian violin teacher, Gidon (Russell Dykstra); he’s loud and cantankerous but adroit at bluntly delineating others’ problems. Anna’s psychologist husband, Henry (Greg Stone)—contrastingly calm, generously liberal with prescription drugs and conceding both wisely and foolishly to his daughter’s needs—is befriended by a pregnant neighbour (Kathryn Beck), a spontaneous if not bright youngster who firmly reintroduces Henry to some of life’s innocent joys. Through these pairings, the inward-looking world of a family in crisis opens out, offering resolution and hope to varying degrees.

If built on the solid foundation of parable and the somewhat vertiginous swing between past and present, Babyteeth is rich in apparently incidental detail, often sitcom funny, constellating around haircuts, the speed at which a car is driven, over-use of medications, condoms, a violin, food, clouds, sex and the baby tooth (Milla’s last) of the play’s title, each growing with symbolic strength as the play progresses. It’s a taut network of imagery and action but always open to surprise and shock. After Moses has spent the night with Milla, Henry gently lectures him (and like Anna, doesn’t let the boy get a word in): “I know I can trust you to give Milla her medication because I know until very recently you worked as a dealer,” adding shortly afterwards, “If she contracts any secondary infections—Do you understand? She’d die of herpes.” He then inadvertently jokes, “I don’t think she’d die of crabs, but it would be so uncomfortable.” The sheer awkwardness of a man struggling to accommodate his young daughter’s needs alongside his fears for her is typical of the play’s dynamic—tense and funny at once.

Helen Buday, Greg Stone, Babyteeth Helen Buday, Greg Stone, Babyteeth
photo Heidrun Löhr
Despite the sheer starkness of their home with its glaringly white kitchen, Anna, Henry and Milla are not bland middle class individuals liberated by quirky strangers. Kalnejais, Flack and the performers offer us characters who are complex in themselves, quite capable of surprising us—Milla is in fact an agent for far-reaching change, not its object. With these characters from very different backgrounds and ways of being coming into close contact, Babyteeth is a comedy of contemporary manners, and much more.

Kalnejais deftly suffuses palpably comic moments with disturbing tensions, awkwardness, outbursts and tears. She dextrously juxtaposes the gentle humour of Henry holding Toby’s pregnant belly with Milla’s emotional and physical exhaustion as she sociably aims a camera at the pair. However, in the nightmarish climactic bedroom scene with Milla and Moses, where the girl reveals the full extent of her determination, Kalnejais drops her pervasively comic tone without losing impetus or descending into bathos, simply because the line between dark drama and comedy is so subtly inter-woven it can afford to loosen and shift easily in either direction, the mark of very fine playwriting.

I was intrigued that a play so rich in emotion never focuses directly on love. Doubtless Anna and Henry love Milla, their care is on the edge of panic—alone in his office Henry injects himself with morphine (“We’re losing her”); he and Anna, who blunders in, pretend it hasn’t happened (“Some tummy bug”). There’s still sexual attraction between Anna and Henry (in a very funny scene which combines sex and lunch) but love is assumed. Similarly there’s only one brief scene in which Milla and Anna are intimate but, again, love is a given. Milla and Moses are not lovers—she knows he has a girlfriend—but their relationship is such that she can ask of him a seriously dangerous favour. Babyteeth is rewardingly about everything that circulates around love but may or may not be love itself, but is what we find there—care, compassion, self-sacrifice—including the curiosity that generates new relationships, new intimacies, with strangers. And here it is regenerative— as comedies so often are—one life passes, a new one is born.

Russell Dykstra, Sean Chu, Babyteeth Russell Dykstra, Sean Chu, Babyteeth
photo Heidrun Löhr
I was curious about Moses telling Henry and Anna that, in the night, Milla had told him “The room was full of people...They were saying she could stop struggling.” I could recall nothing else like it in the play. In the script, when Milla looks up at the clouds she hears what Kalnejais describes as “What the dead said to Milla.” The production, however, simply offers us Milla’s engagement with the clouds as a transcendent experience, conveying a distinctive sense of self-contained otherness about the girl. Moses’ report is presumably the odd residue of in-rehearsal editing.

The acting in Babyteeth is outstanding: Helen Buday’s Anna is compulsively jittery, riffing on her preoccupations, hands and legs dancing restlessly; Greg Stone conveys the sadness and bewilderment that underlies a calm exterior; and Sara West creates a convincingly young Milla, capturing her rapid maturation, anger, weariness and, in the end, dark sense of purpose. Eamon Farren’s rangy Moses oscillates nicely between charmer, scary thug and friend; Russell Dykstra expertly realises a fascinating Gidon who, despite his sexism and his anger at God and much else, is a carer in his own belligerent way; and Kathryn Beck’s single mum-to-be Toby is no innocent but is possessed of an appealing tunnel vision that yields friendliness and joy. A small boy, Thoung (David Carreon, Sean Chu), is taken on by Gidon for free lessons on the violin (the iPod-hating teacher describing the body of the instrument in sexual terms), a role performed with the requisite stillness. Collectively the performers embrace Kalnejais’ overlapping dialogue, the demands of comic timing and rapid emotional transformations.

Babyteeth reveals Rita Kalnejais to be a writer of considerable promise, adroitly negotiating the demands of structure, cleverly giving almost equal weight to her six characters to enhance the sense of an expanding if intimate world and deftly deploying symbols that lend poetry to the drama.


Belvoir: Babyteeth, writer Rita Kalnejais, director Eamon Flack, performers Kathryn Beck, Helen Buday, David Carreon, Sean Chu, Russell Dykstra, Eamon Farren, Greg Stone and Sara West, Upstairs, Belvoir Theatre, Sydney, Feb 11-March 18

This article first appeared as part of RT's online e-dition march 6, 2012.

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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