Like its namesake, Elizabeth Moynihan's latest play, “Quicksand,” can be something of a mess. Narratively it moves between story and observation with an uneasy clumsiness at times, exploring imaginary worlds and the world as we imagine it, strained relationships on and offline, mental health and the media’s attitude, and the irresistible joy of Riverdance. Structurally it can switch between duologue and monologue in a confused, often heavy handed manner. Even the language feels clunky in places, with its quicksand metaphor not even the best the play has to offer. Clumsy, clunky and confused by times, by the laws of logic "Quicksand" should be desperately reaching for the jungle vine in order to haul itself free of its own, self made messiness. But it doesn’t. Nor does it need to. For if "Quicksand" is a mess, it's a glorious mess. Built on two glorious performances and some fine direction in this darkly comic production. One that sees Idir Mná and The New Theatre deliver some black box magic.
Inspired by the McKinnon case in the UK, where a mother fought to prevent her autistic son from being extradited to the United States for hacking into military sites, "Quicksand" takes its real life inspiration as a jumping off point into a wonderland of riches. Joe, a hacker under house arrest, is a suspect with a sweet tooth who might, or might not, be a stalker. Or he might just be as bad at reading people and social cues as he is good at being a computer wiz. Yet if the Asperger-like Joe has difficulties negotiating the world and his controlling mother, Joy, she has difficulties negotiating the frustrated demands of Joe. Urinating in bottles so he doesn’t have to get up during his computer games, refusing to answer questions or go on walks, Joe's stranger than usual behaviour is not boding well for his upcoming court case. But Joe and his condition has always been a worry for Joy, even when he was a child on holidays in Kerry where there was that incident with the bird. But these latest behaviours could prove to be a bridge too far, unless there’s something that isn’t being seen for everyone having already decided where, and how, to look.
If "Quicksand" is occasionally clunky in execution, it's because Moynihan is elbowing at the boundaries of the conventional, trying to make room to say, and see things in a fresh and engaging way. Like a better episode of Black Mirror, Moynihan’s craftily smart script meditates on the marvels and miseries of our media driven lives and the ways in which the digital is overwriting, or rewriting, human experience. Especially when it comes to those who have difficulty negotiating the world round them. A superb study in loneliness and isolation, Moynihan marries components of a Pulp Fiction style thriller, where dialogue might appear to be saying nothing but is saying everything, with some comic and deeply moving moments.
Director Emily Foran beautifully accentuates the subtleties and humanity in Moynihan’s script, making this short work feel incredibly rich, as well as engendering two powerhouse performances by never forcing what doesn’t need to be forced. Like Moynihan, Foran pushes at the boundaries to find new possibilities, in this case the boundaries imposed by the limitations of the space. Compositionally, transitions can sometimes seem sloppy, yet Foran ensures performance is beautifully paced and rendered. Bill Woodland’s lighting does a marvellous job in locating mood and place, even as his uninspiring sound design proves less than stellar for being immaturely obvious. If Lisa Krugel’s functional set doesn't make the cleverest use of the space, it bravely attempts to convey the bland, external subtleties of Moynihan’s world, resulting in a somewhat depersonalised stage with only bare, but keenly felt, traces of personality. But one suspects Krugel doesn’t want to compete with how the inner is made manifest in performance, courtesy of two crowning performances from Rex Ryan and Donna Dent. Ryan is simply stunning, taking the potentially creepy Joe and making you care till your heart aches in a career best performance to date. As is Donna Dent as the mother whose life is defined by a habit of worry for a son she loves, even if he, and she, don’t always know the best way to go about it.
If life is like a box of chocolates, "Quicksand" can make the same claim, containing all your delicious favourites as well as one or two moments, such as its hurried and untidy ending, that might not be quite as tasty. Inhabiting a liminal space between the often unreal real world and the real unreal world of the digital, "Quicksand" sees people struggle to find place and connection when the ground is constantly shifting beneath them, ready to swallow them whole. You might laugh, wonder, and maybe even cry a little at "Quicksand." You'll certainly delight at Dent and rejoice at Ryan’s truly remarkable performance.
"Quicksand" by Elizabeth Moynihan, presented by Idir Mná and The New Theatre, runs at The New Theatre until June 22.
For more information, visit The New Theatre.