REVIEW: FLAKE by Dan Lee (Co-Created by Chi Nguyen)

Bob and Murph are getting old. Bob is trying to face that fact head-on but Murph won’t play that game. He still feels young and vital and, if he admits that he’s getting on, he might find that it’s true.

Bob has escaped to Hanoi – to get away from Melbourne, to spare his son from dealing with a dying father and for the cheap mangoes.

Murph has followed his old friend because he loves travelling. And he loves women. Bob accuses him of having a child on every continent, but even if that’s an exaggeration, it’s not because Murph has stopped trying.

A young Vietnamese woman, Duyen – whose name Murph keeps mispronouncing – has followed him home. He’s being gregarious, trying to entertain her. He’s clearly trying to sleep with her but she’s not falling for his charms. But why has she come home with him?

Dan Lee’s Flake is an interrogation of age and death. Bob’s refusal to reconnect with his son is in stark contrast to Murph, who is attentive to his children – even if they are all from different broken relationships. Bob is scared that if he goes back to Australia, he’ll get stuck in a nursing home, so he’s determined to see out his final days in Vietnam.

Duyen drops in and out of the narrative of the two old white guys, and seems to be a convenient narrative device – to get Bob and Murph to open up. Even when she starts to get a backstory of her own, the twist in the tale feels contrived.

When Dan Lee first wrote this play, he wrote it without the character of Duyen, but during development, performer Chi Nguyen was brought in to help him develop her. The development of a play is never a straight line and playwrights should be seeking to work with a variety of collaborators to get the world they are writing about right.

The world of Hanoi as described in the play is rich in its detail and set designer Jacob Battista has put together a flat in that city that looks authentic. It’s small. It’s grimy. A drab room for Bob’s final weeks.

The old men’s verbal sparring is the key action of the play. They like to hear themselves speak. Bob loves using long words and phrases to skewer Murph’s black-and-white view of the world. There’s light conversations about their friendship, and darker conversations about family.

Much of the conversations in the play are circular, too. Bob’s failing health and fading memory might explain why he keeps saying the same things over and over again, but it gives the play a halting and unnatural feel. It’s also unfortunate that, due to illness, Robert Menzies was not off-book for opening night – and though some of his monologues made you forget the pages in his hand, some of the arguments weren’t as full-throttle as they needed to be.

Joe Petruzzi is perfect as Murph – giving awful Australian tourist, as well as genuine concern for Menzie’s Bob. Phoebe Phuoc Nguyen brings a lot of passion to the character of Duyen, but she’s overshadowed by the two older men. The structure of the play demands it be that way, which is a real shame.

There’s a lot of interesting ideas in Flake – about dying with dignity, bodily autonomy and how the elderly are treated in Australia. Setting the play in Vietnam is troubling, though. Bob describes Hanoi as a “brain” at one stage – vital and full of connections – and you can see what Lee is trying to say about Bob’s dilemma about his dying days.

But then the country feels like a prop, a backdrop, a metaphor for what he’s feeling. And, in the end, the play is about the age-old conflict of whether or not to reconcile with your family when you’re on your last legs. Couldn’t that story have been told in Melbourne? Did this play need to have the window-dressing of a foreign country?

The cast is great, but the text still needs work. There’s important subject matter being tackled in Flake but in a way that’s difficult to engage with.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

The play runs at Red Stitch until November 5th.

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson