Since the time of Shakespeare, British playwrights have been considered among the best in the English-speaking world. In more recent times — the first half of the 20th century, especially — British actors, with their classical training and impeccable diction, have set the standard for actors everywhere.

Now, however, the best of the English-speaking actors have been augmented by a new group coming from Australia. Think Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett, Naomi Watts … and then add Jamie Irvine, Tina Kobas, Matt Passmore, and Kym Wilson.

These last four are appearing in the first Los Angeles performance of Australian playwright Andrew Bovell’s mind-boggling mystery/drama “Speaking in Tongues.” It’s about love, and infidelity, and maybe a murder, set in times that move backwards and forward as the four actors, playing nine characters, interact in each other’s stories.

If it sounds complicated, it isn’t, because the actors are so extraordinary that you are never confused about who they are. Moreover, there is a delightful sense of participation as you connect the dots from one surprising scene to the next.

It starts out with infidelity, as two sexually frustrated married women embark on a one-night stand with two married men that they have just picked up. The women don’t know each other, but by coincidence each has picked up the other one’s husband. As the two couples arrive in their separate sleazy hotel rooms, they each try awkwardly to begin the seduction. And since all conversations framing such a situation are virtually the same, each man speaks to his partner with the same words at the same time and the women respond in unison as well. But the evening doesn’t go as expected: one encounter is successful, and the other one isn’t.

From that beginning, each of the four returns home and two confess their betrayal to their mates and two keep it secret. From there we learn their individual stories, their fears and flaws and their views on life and marriage. And as the actors move from one character to another (Irvine plays three different parts; the other three play two parts each), their lives and their stories begin to overlap.

It’s a breathtaking play filled with ‘Aha!’ moments. When the men meet and share their stories, one advises the other, “Forgive her, and if you can’t — get even!” And the women say, “It takes courage to be cruel and I don’t have that,” and, “We get hurt and we move on.”
Interspersed within the tangled romances is the story of a woman’s frightening experience as her car breaks down on a lonely road in the middle of the night. After leaving countless messages for her husband, who doesn’t answer the phone, she accepts a ride with a stranger and then suddenly jumps out of the car and disappears, leaving one of her shoes behind.

This sparkling, fast-paced play is directed by Jeneffa Soldatic, a member of the Actors Studio Directors Unit, who has directed and developed many award-winning theater productions and films. It is a production of the Australian Theatre Company, an organization whose stated mission is “to further enrich the relationship between Australians and Americans by offering our voices, stories, culture, talent, and spirit via world-class theatrical projects.”

As for the mysterious title of the play, it appears to reflect the emotional dysfunction of the protagonists. They talk and explain and search for love and understanding, but they never really communicate. They don’t hear each other and they have all but stopped listening. So for all the good their talking does, they might as well be speaking in tongues.

Winner of the Australian Writers’ Guild’s AWGIE award for Best Stage Play, “Speaking in Tongues” can now be seen at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., in Los Angeles on a rotating schedule with Australian playwright Brendan Cowell’s “Ruben Guthrie.” Because these two works are part of a mini-festival that includes a free reading series of plays written by Australian women, the complete schedule is somewhat irregular.

“Speaking in Tongues” will be presented on Saturday, June 18 at 4 p.m.; Sunday, June 19 at 7 p.m.; Tuesday, June 21 at 8 p.m.; Friday, June 24 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 25 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 26 at 3 p.m.; and Monday, June 27 at 8 p.m.

In addition, the free Works by Women reading series will be presented at 8 p.m. on consecutive Wednesdays, June 22 and June 29.
For reservations, call 323-960-4443 or visit www.australiantheatrecompany.com.

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