“Is this what you call therapy?”
‘When does a twosome become a threesome?’ Twosome?! Reading the promotional blurb for Park Avenue Cat set alarm bells ringing before the show had even started at the Arts Theatre but I was determined to give this a go as it is starring Josefina Gabrielle. One of the happiest moments of my theatregoing year so far was in her arrival onstage in Me and My Girl as I had completely forgotten she was in the cast and she was just phenomenal, as indeed she had been in Sweet Charity and Hello, Dolly! : this marking the first time I’ve seen her in straight drama. Quite why she chose this, written by Los Angeles-based scribe Frank Strausser who apparently has fingers in films and books as well as theatre, we will never know as it is completely undeserving of her talents.
The show centres on Gabrielle’s character Lily, a forty-something art dealer who has summoned her boyfriend Philip to couples therapy as she is getting frustrated with the lack of progress in their relationship. When he predictably doesn’t turn up, her lover Dorian sneakily takes his place in the session, leaving the therapist struggling to deal with Lily’s emotional crises and the confusion wrought by Dorian’s appearance, especially as he is one of her exes as well. A later session, after catching glimpses of Lily with both her lovers, ramps up the farcical comedy as both men turn up for the session with her and the therapist forces Lily to confront just what it is that she wants.
It could have been good but Strausser’s writing shows no discernible comic aptitude or insight into any of the issues around therapy or relationships that it raises. Most crucially, he has little empathetic understanding of the dilemma faced by women struggling to balance society’s expectations of becoming a wife and mother with the individual desires that each have. Instead he retreats to the easy laughs generated by making Lily a gold-digging girl-about-town used to the high life (which I think is what is meant by the term Park Avenue Cat though it is never clarified) and Gabrielle has to try her damnedest to try and rise above this casual misogynist viewpoint to make a living, breathing, likeable woman out of Lily: she almost gets there. Daniel Weyman as Dorian and Gray O’Brien as Philip, the two men in her life, are both amiable enough – Weyman’s physicality is great and O’Brien’s swaggering presence sorely underused – but they’re given completely paper-thin characters and again, struggle to rise above the sheer fatuousness of the material.
Matters are not helped by some dodgy directorial choices too. Tessa Peake-Jones’ therapist is constantly on the phone to troublesome clients in whom we have no interest yet who keep reappearing, dragging out the action and forcing Peake-Jones into some very strained extemporising. The dives into exaggerated stage fighting are frankly embarrassing and unnecessary, seeking a comedic tone that isn’t present in the writing. And the final scene sees some utterly pointless wandering on and off stage as Lily and Philip have a massive argument whilst waiting for the lift to come by the unconventional method of walking up and down a corridor. It is both ridiculous and distracting.
Mark Walters’ design initially looks impressive, especially for a theatre like the Arts, two mini revolves allowing for three completely distinct locations to be created. But it just doesn’t look professional: the joins are far too visible, sections failed to click in smoothly and it’s all done at a laborious pace: the only bits that moved quickly were the bits being yanked into place by stagehands. The music that covers these long changes is pleasant enough but the patience is stretched extremely thin.
Ultimately, I found little to commend Park Avenue Cat and found it to be a disappointing waste of some great acting talent who are given so very little to work with. That it is also being adapted for film is something that doesn’t surprise me but is extremely depressing. The best thing I can say about the show is that for once, the image used to promote the show is accurate and Josefina Gabrielle wears that red dress throughout the final scene (see Anne-Marie Duff and the Cause Célèbre poster).