Review: Triple X, Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay – Tuesday, 11 January, 2022. Reviewed by editor-at-large Gary Nunn.
Three things stand out about this play: it’s been a long time in the making, it’s conventional and unconventional in equal parts, and it’s based on a true story.
Having been cancelled four times and programmed three times – by both Queensland Theatre, where it was commissioned, and the Sydney Theatre Company – it finally opened in Sydney this week: two years late and with two understudies on stage.
The conventional part: this is a modern love story, set within a classically dysfunctional American family.
It opens with our troubled protagonist, Scotty, a rich Wall Street financier, on the eve of his wedding, discussing his ‘playboy’ lifestyle with Jase, his soccer-loving best friend who admits to drugging and taking advantage of his female conquests.
Scotty seemingly has it all: he’s attractive, successful (he more than once mentions that his apartment costed $3.5m), about to marry and has a ride or die best buddy.
On a very drunken night out to a strip joint, 10 months prior, we learn that Scotty was found in an inebriated state by one of the club’s performers. After helping him home, they embark on an intense affair in the ensuing months.
The unconventional part – at least to the stage – is that the performer is a trans woman, Dexie. STC artistic director Kip Williams says he believes this depiction of transamorous attraction is “a world first for a mainstage production”.
Dexie, though, has been here before: she’s the “in between” destination who helps gay men come out and find comfort in their own skin, and straight transamorous men indulge that niggling secret fantasy. Once itches are scratched and self-esteems boosted, the men move on, leaving Dexie once again alone.
Moments like this are revealing of the trans experience from the point of view of Dexie, played by trans female actor Glace Chase, who also wrote the play. The heartfelt lines are taken verbatim from her life: they’ve either been said to or by Chase herself. This is also why the play is set in New York City; Chase had a weekly comedy karaoke night, Singaling, there for years. We see skits from this in the play, in equal parts funny and cringeworthy, as Dexie struggles with awful jokes as a wannabe comic. The real Scotty was an occasional attendee.
Scotty, over time, and after much excruciating denial, promises he’ll be different. “Maybe I can be in between too,” he suggests to Dexie in one of the production’s more tender moments. Dexie, young but tough, initially resists the urge to melt in his arms as he promises to hold her all night.
In the backdrop of the affair is Scotty’s dysfunctional family: Claire, his dreadlocked, unkempt, weed smoking, backpacking, lesbian, progessive sister. She’s permanently skint and survives on her quick wit and sardonic manner but clearly loves Scotty, despite his toxic male front. Her own family looks unconventional – she has used sperm from a surprising donor to get her wife pregnant. The role risks running to a stereotype, but is rescued from that by the performance of Contessa Treffone. She can convey with a look – as she does when Scotty unleashes hell on a New York Times reporter for not including his upcoming nuptials on the wedding pages – her lampoonery of and disdain for his outdated ostentatious, bullish, ‘greed is good’ lifestyle.
Deborah, neurotic mother to Scotty and Claire, is played by Christen O’Leary in the style of the August: Osage County or Appropriate matriarch: erratic, unpredictable, in turns outrageous and maternal, and as adept as her son in moving mountains to give the appearance of a more tidy, conventional, socially acceptable life than the one she’s living beneath the mask. It slips early and hard in an outstanding turn by O’Leary.
The show begins promisingly, with the family almost affectionately sparring as they reunite. Deborah unravels before her son Scotty does, and the irony is that Claire – completely broke, not on a professional trajectory, filthy from her travels, ‘different’ through her sexual orientation and sharp tongued – is the most stable and authentic of the three of them.
Character complexity is conveyed through Jase and Deborah. Jase is the best friend we’re determined to hate, till he turns an endearing blind eye to Dexie and Scotty’s affair. That is, until it threatens Scotty’s expertise at keeping up appearances. Deborah veers between nurturing and unreasonably demanding, brutal and backtracking. They’re the contradictions that make any believable character.
Dexie isn’t XX or XY – she’s triple X. Unique, extra. She resists categorisation as she’s still learning about her own identity. Those triple Xs – a placeholder to the playwright – also form the three kisses of affection and intimacy that Dexie isn’t ready to admit she desires. They’re also the three characters caught in a love triangle; one almost completely anonymous; the other two still getting to know their true selves as if suspended in a tautological teenage spiral.
In a clever and effective directing technique, director Paige Rattray has us watch the future scene before the one that directly precedes it. Each scene couplet, then, takes us back in time, the reverse chronology giving the audience gratifying revelatory moments that seemed curious in the scene directly before.
The script is light on metaphor and allegory, instead leaning on the verbatim lines and experiences writer Glace Chase had as a trans woman in New York.
The touching moments which strip Dexie back from the bad-joke telling, urbane and sassy performer to the woman trying not to fall in love with a man she knows will probably never leave his closet are affecting, and juxtaposed with some great comic timing, usually provided by Deborah or Claire’s growing suspicions that their son/brother is up to something highly unexpected.
During act two, the tone relies more heavily on the comedy. Some moments, including a graphic sex scene between Scotty and Dexie, veer into the territory of slapstick and farce; something that plays out through a series of misunderstandings and almost-revelations. Whilst definitely funnier than Dexie’s on-stage jokes, it risks undermining some of the sympathy we’ve developed as the characters have both grown and unravelled before us on stage. It takes us from pathos to bathos.
I longed for more earnest revelations and insights from Dexie, this recipient of a new love that dare not speak its name. The armour she’s built to fend off the stings of vulnerability and intimacy plays out even in her most tender moments with Scotty, and forms a barrier that prevents us, the audience, from ever truly getting to know her either. It begs the question: is Scotty in love with her, or the idea of her?
But perhaps that was the point; this play shifts the focus from the trans person to the lesser discussed vantage point of the transamorous Scotty, and the elaborate deceptions he’s willing to doggedly undertake to hide his true self from the world, and his private shame from himself. As Chase writes: “Only I’d be stupid enough to write a play that’s, in part, about toxic masculinity, but is also sympathetic to ‘toxic men.’”
That missing tenderness, hidden in the New York tough urbane exteriors of the city’s hardened and duplicitous residents, instead resides in Claire, whose travels have worn into her an empathy, albeit cased in acerbic repartee. The lengths she’s willing to go to to show her brother she’ll accept this unconventional union are both endearingly gentle and unreasonably brutal; her desire to accept and embrace the exotic ultimately overtakes her underlying humanity. She’s too eager for her brother to be ‘other’ with her and doesn’t provide him with enough space to be who he really is because that space doesn’t yet exist in society. Even in New York, where anything goes.
When there’s a shooting at the club where Dexie works, Scotty’s attempt to shield the rising dread that she has been killed with an unconvincing nonchalance has the audience doing the unthinkable: siding with the cheating husband, and hoping the affair stops the wedding. You can almost see Josh McConville’s bare heart beating on stage.
If only you could see Dexie’s too.
Triple X plays Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay until Saturday, 26 February, 2022. For tickets and further details, visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2022/triple-x.