“Influence” is David Williamson’s final shot across the bow. It’s a bleak, angry story populated with ugly Australians, the worst of whom is a reactionary right-wing radio shock jock who is insecure at home and at work.
As Ziggi Blasko (John Waters) feels his power slipping, he cranks up the volume of his opinionated Fox News-style rants. One day he’ll attempt to agitate “the feminists”; the next day, fueled by the potentially inflammatory comments of a Moslem church leader, Blasko returns fire at all Middle Eastern exiles, living both legally and illegally in Australia. To his way of thinking they are all covert extremists with the potential for terrorism. Blasko feeds the fear and loathing of his listeners and chooses callers who reinforce his worldview.
His dad, a small-time Nazi war criminal, adores Ziggi’s program, but his wife, sister and daughter are embarrassed by it. They have their own problems. The wife is a narcissistic ballerina determined to return to work after having a baby. The sister is an overly ambitious psychologist and the daughter is suffering from bipolar disorder.
Only the servants, an underpaid, overworked maid and driver, are good and kind and deserving of the audience’s affection.
By act two, even the laughs Williamson usually writes so neatly — and his devoted Sydney Theater Company aud usually laps up with relish — are sparse.
Zoe Carides shines as the Turkish maid Zehra, but even that character, though likable, lacks dimension. Octavia Barron Martin does her best as Ziggi’s daughter, oscillating between glumness and manic enthusiasm. Genevieve Hegney gives a strong perf as Ziggi’s wife, fond of declaring, “It’s not that I don’t care but…” to explain her lack of concern for anybody but herself. But Waters is rather absent as Ziggi, possibly because he doesn’t have much to work with.
Unlike Williamson’s “Birthrights,” a play about surrogate motherhood that he obviously researched thoroughly, “Influence” seems under-researched. It reads like the longtime liberal playwright set out to draw a central character he thought he knew. What’s not to know about talk radio hosts? They bleat for hours on end each day for all to hear; their motivation is obvious, isn’t it?
Yes. Williamson provides plausible explanations for Ziggi’s motivations, but he fails to explain how an apparently intelligent human being can espouse such populist views.
Williamson’s announced retirement has been met with some skepticism. He is well paid for his plays and they have been money spinners for the mainstage and fringe companies that produce them. In addition, the elder statesman of the Oz stage is a veteran of many film and TV projects.
“Influence” seems an inadequate swansong to his 35-year career.