Theatre

Material aspiration clashes with true romance in Glace Chase’s open-hearted play Triple X. By Cassie Tongue.

Triple X

Glace Chase as Dexie and Josh McConville as Scotty in Triple X.
Glace Chase as Dexie and Josh McConville as Scotty in Triple X.
Credit: Prudence Upton

We have been packaged and sold an ideal lifestyle. Aspirational and glamorous, it asks that we pursue wealth relentlessly in order to obtain consumer goods, power and respect. The lifestyle is neatly marked out by social milestones: reaching the age of majority; getting married; buying property; having children. This is the backbone of white culture in Australia, from where playwright Glace Chase hails. It’s near-religion in America, where her play Triple X – now on in a Sydney Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre co-production – is set.

Scotty (Josh McConville) was born into a working-class family. His mother, Deborah, (Christen O’Leary) has lived a troubled life and has passed her desire for upward mobility at all costs to her children. Since Claire (Contessa Treffone) – a proudly progressive lesbian – has opted out of the process, the family’s chance of achieving that dream of wealth, consumption and social climbing are all pinned on former jock Scott, the man their family can rely on. The less said about his father, the better.

The play takes place within Scott’s  $3.5 million Manhattan apartment (designed by Renée Mulder and lit by Ben Hughes to pulse and change with the characters’ moods). At the top it seems like he’s doing everything right. He’s working in a high-flying finance job. He has connections all over the city. His casually expensive tastes are lived-in and apparent.

And by this time tomorrow, he’ll be married to Kymberley. As we learn via Scotty’s side of a phone conversation, her biggest concern the night before her wedding is if their union will be announced in the Vows section of The New York Times. Scotty is doing everything he can to make it happen.

On this critical night, Scotty is surrounded by loved ones. Claire flies in for the big day from doing aid work in Nepal, and Deborah is there too, crackling with nervous maternal energy. She’s always wanted a “real” family wedding; Claire’s, she says, was a lesbian wedding and so didn’t count. Scotty’s best friend and roommate, Jase (Elijah Williams, played by understudy Anthony Taufa on opening night in Sydney), is home on this evening too for moral – and amoral – support.

But nothing this pristine can be real, and it becomes very clear very quickly that Scotty is struggling profoundly with the burdens of social obligations and expectations.

He might be about to get married, but Scotty is in love with Dexie, a trans queen he met at a club downtown known for its high-concept drag, burlesque and performance art. Through a series of flashbacks, we watch their relationship unfurl and come to recognise that Scotty and Dexie have a deep connection. It becomes clear that Scotty has a decision to make. Will he choose love and happiness, or will he make the safest, most “correct” decision for a straight white man in contemporary America?

That we are invested in said straight white man is not a given. His performed masculinity is frustrating and overbearing, and it can be tiring to watch such a man be the centre of an imagined world when men are placed at the centres of power in the real one. But Chase writes Scotty with deeply considered insight and astonishing compassion. His personality is fleshed out in Chase’s robust, hungry writing, and is made real in McConville’s remarkable performance, which builds on his strong talent for realism and his habit of finding vulnerability beneath all manner of tough male facades that map out the theatrical landscape.

But he, and the play, come the most alive when Dexie is onstage. Played by Chase herself, Dexie is droll and guarded, charming and witty. Chase and McConville’s chemistry is a living flame and even in the audience feels a little addictive; when they are apart from each other, you miss the way that, when they talk or argue or flirt, the air feels charged.

Director Paige Rattray is at her best making electricity out of Scotty and Dexie’s connection, but she guides the whole play with a steady hand – dipping with confidence into archness, camp and comedy without ever losing its rigorously smart, undeniably dramatic core.

Dexie is painfully self-aware to the point of self-sabotage. She knows that men like Scotty use women like her; she knows that any interaction with a man like him comes with very real personal risks to her safety. When Scotty is romantic, and she is able to accept his affection, it’s a small benediction; when Scotty forgets to project what is expected of him and instead honours his feelings, it’s a balm.

Like any good love story, the obstacles are as deeply felt as the romance. Like any real love story, Triple X resists the idealised happiness of romantic comedy. As with any great play, Chase is on a hunt for the real rather than the sanitised. Her dialogue is finely tuned and patterned to hit the contemporary ear easily and naturally, the jokes both deliberately bad and stunningly fun (one – a mishearing that mixes up The Bangles, the ’80s pop rock band, and the Bengals, the Cincinnati American football team – manages to convey a whole world of conflicting experiences between the lovers while also being genuinely funny).

When the plot turns grim, characters reveal their ugliest selves, as people often do, and Chase presents their best and worst as equal and complicating halves. No one is above reproach. No one is beyond care.

The play’s structure – it takes place over the course of a single evening, though flashbacks treat us to 10 months of story – allows a queering of narrative and interrogation of its own characters and events. They are caught in every lie. But it also reveals the play’s weakness, which is the thoroughness of this interrogation: every statement seems to have a corresponding reference; every stray idea has a direct translation to real life.

This is the play’s only impulse towards neatness and perfection, and while many of these instances work, there are too many. You begin to see the hand of the writer rather than the hearts of the characters. It’s most unfortunate in the case of Deborah: every insight she offers to her children is revealed in a flashback to not be her own. She is constantly diminished by this device; as a result, her character feels like a stereotype of an ignorant and hysterical matriarch.

Still, this is a small misfiring impulse in a play determined to find the humanity and truth in impulse, the one writerly indulgence in a play that resists indulgence. Mostly, the play’s complex emotional studies of people struggling to honour themselves in a world that only accepts a narrow definition of selfhood, and its heart-opening love story, reaches over into the audience and unlocks us.

Triple X plays at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, until February 26.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Queer love".

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Cassie Tongue is a theatre critic and writer living on unceded Gadigal land.

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