Aussie playwright Stephen Sewell tries his hand at an end-of-the-world comedy in "It Just Stopped," an adroitly mounted farce that flies high for about two thirds of its blackly amusing course, then clumsily flounders. Knowing direction by Neil Armfield, plus a stellar cast, could keep auds sated despite home-stretch structural bumps.

Prolific, politically committed, prize-winning Aussie playwright Stephen Sewell tries his hand at an end-of-the-world comedy in “It Just Stopped,” an adroitly mounted farce that flies high for about two thirds of its blackly amusing course, then clumsily flounders. Knowing direction by an ever-assured Neil Armfield, plus a small but stellar cast giving their considerable all, could keep auds sated despite home-stretch structural bumps.

On a typical workaday morning, music reviewer Frank (Marcus Graham) and his radio producer wife, Beth (Catherine McClements), rush around their fashionably appointed, split-level New York apartment, trying to get into the usual routine, dishing out hilariously abusive zingers at each other along the way. Eventually, the bantering couple discovers that, one by one, all the usual amenities and services, from elevators to electricity and cell phones, have gone suddenly dysfunctional.

The pair’s mounting incredulity and escalating hysteria in the face of total techno shutdown affords a constant stream of sharply pointed verbal and sight gags that recall Neil Simon and Alan Aykbourn at their wryly observant best. Both pretentious Frank and brittle Beth are deftly drawn (almost like New Yorker cartoon figures) by Graham and the sexily high-strung McClements.

Add to this tight two-hander the invasive visitation by two very ugly Australians, vulgar nouveau-riche cardboard king Bill (John Wood) and his primly bland missus, Pearl (Rebecca Massey), and the expectation might be that the laughs will get louder and longer. For a while, they certainly do, highlighted in a rib-tickling dialectical debate between the post-modern egghead (“Art isn’t about anything”) and the horse-sensible oaf (“If all art needs to be incomprehensible, why do we need people like you to explain it?”).

However, it’s not increasing mirth but top-heavy polemic that resolutely sets in halfway through the second act. What had been socially satiric subtext curdles into super-surrealism run rampant, with strongly established character types plus a confusing melange of reality levels being pushed and twisted beyond credible proportion.

The conversion undergone by Graham’s Frank, in particular, from self-centered jerk to ethically aware man-of-conscience, is unconvincing; unfortunately, Sewell’s whole “message,” as such, seems to crucially hinge upon it.

But an out-of-control climax and (non-)resolution finally do not detract from what has preceded: namely, some of the smartest comedic writing this side of Doomsday, and a quartet of finely tuned and toned farceurs lending lightness of touch to a promising piece that ultimately gets just a tad too heavy for its own humorous good.

It Just Stopped

Merlyn Theater, Cub Malthouse, Melbourne; 391 Seats; A$45 ($33) Top

Production

A Malthouse Theater and Company B Belvoir presentation of a play in two acts by Stephen Sewell. Directed by Neil Armfield.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Stephen Curtis; lighting, Paul Jackson; original music, John Rodgers; sound, Russell Goldsmith; dialect consultant, Tyler Coppin; production stage manager: Kylie Mascord. Opened, reviewed April 5, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Frank - Marcus Graham Beth - Catherine McClements Bill - John Wood Pearl - Rebecca Massey

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