Australia's most widely produced female playwright, Joanna Murray-Smith, follows her recent West End opener "The Female of the Species" with "Ninety," a much darker portrait of a defunct marriage.

Isabel - Melinda Butel William - Kim Gyngell

Australia’s most widely produced female playwright, Joanna Murray-Smith, follows her recent West End opener “The Female of the Species” with “Ninety,” a much darker portrait of a defunct marriage. An often ambitiously serious chamber piece, this two-hander is leavened in Melbourne Theater Company’s premiere by quippy humor and lifted by potent lead performances.

The one-act play’s title refers to the fact that estranged successful ex-spouse William (an excellently cast Kim Gyngell) allows former wife Isabel (the aptly mercurial Melinda Butel) just one and a half hours of his precious time for a plenary “rounding-off” session before he leaves to wed a younger woman. The couple’s catch-up reopens old wounds, inflicts a few new scars, rekindles past passion and finally uncovers one tragic truth.

The pair’s spiky banter is delivered across a modishly bare in-the-round acting space (elegantly crafted in project-home style by Andrew Bellchambers), which very gradually revolves. The cumulative visual effect is of a 90-minute emotional clock, winding the characters up through developmental flashbacks, then winding them inevitably down.

Such a framework would ideally support a tight dramatic coil, gaining intensity and climactic catharsis as verbal darts fly and accusatory revelations are shafted. But the writing very rarely rises above a kind of smartass urbanity, milking all-too-easy aphorisms and facile jibes from the lifestyles and mindsets of the two somewhat shallow protags.

He’s a deft putdown artist, and she’s a glib know-it-all, with the mismatched pair more suited to two-dimensional sitcom than probing character study.

Nevertheless, the preceding barrage of wisecracking insults somehow does not diminish the impact of the play’s final disclosures — especially in terms of William’s slow-burning angst, which is clearly privileged in the writing over Isabel’s more remotely controlled suffering. The result is a cluster of almost unbearably painful outbursts of middle-aged male grief and sorrow, grippingly conveyed by Gyngell as he digs deep and remains true.

That William and, to a lesser degree, Isabel emerge as compelling combatants in Murray-Smith’s ultimately contrived battle-of-the-sexes exercise is possibly more attributable to Simon Phillips’ expert direction of the actors than to the text, which is simultaneously underwritten and overwritten. This is uneven material that only occasionally offers genuine or lasting insights.

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Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Center, Melbourne; 375 seats; A$75.30 $62 top

Production: A Melbourne Theatre Company presentation of a play in one act by Joanna Murray-Smith. Directed by Simon Phillips.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Andrew Bellchambers; lighting, Nick Schlieper; original music, Ian McDonald; production stage manager: Alyson Brown. Opened Aug. 27, 2008. Reviewed Sept. 8. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: Isabel - Melinda Butel William - Kim Gyngell

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