Sunday July 21, 2024


By Diana Simmonds
June 22 2024

AMERICAN SIGNS, Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 2, 19 June - 14 July 2024. Photography - Prudence Upton - all Catherine Văn-Davies

An unnamed Management Consultant (Catherine Văn-Davies) is “on the beach” – as confirmed on the home screen of a laptop set up on one of the plain grey tables ranked across an otherwise bare stage (minimal yet meaningful set design by James Lew).

“On the beach” is one of the more guessable phrases uttered by Văn-Davies. Playwright Anchuli Felicia King has gifted her a script that waggishly starts out in a dialect that’s actually the jargon spoken by those highly paid people whose daily toil produces nothing of value yet destroys lives and communities.

The Consultant is on the beach, she tells us. A third-generation Vietnamese-American, striving to succeed is in her immigrant DNA, and “Wharton” and “Stanford” are part of her personal jargon. But instead of carrying out an Action Plan, devised on the Back-of-the-Envelope with Blanks to accommodate possible Bandwidth and not end up in a Boil the Ocean situation, the Consultant is between gigs. She may not get another and can instead only dream of the C-Suite. Meanwhile, she fruitlessly researches data on the relative size of penises. You’ll be surprised by the barnacle.


Just as she’s beginning to think she’ll never experience a Sniff Test or the dubious thrill of Scope Creep, she is plucked from obscurity by a senior partner to tend The Weeds on a project in the mid-West where he’s the Rock Star. The company manufactures industrial lighting and wants them to cut costs, of course. And that means finding White Space (even though it might already be occupied by humans with families and bills to pay).

Inevitably, the Rock Star and the Consultant find their own white space between the sheets of whichever hotel is their billet when they’re on site. He’s married but this is something special, she believes. The audience meanwhile, is confronted by its own mirror image – on the back wall – and it doesn’t take long to feel both complicit in the Consultant’s everyday and a tiny bit uneasy about how easy it is to be co-opted by a bright, beautiful, articulate and reasonable young woman.

Lighting designer Benjamin Brockman has set a stack of lamps on either side of the stage area as well as in more conventional places and these horizontal shafts of light suggest creepy industrial spaces as well as after-hours offices as the Consultant restlessly moves about, confiding, matter-of-factly and without guilt – she says – as her predicament grows dodgier by the day.


Văn-Davies is a gripping, credible presence on any day of the week, and in American Signs, she is even more riveting than usual. As she negotiates the murk of corporate and capitalist America via the neon tube business (the company seeking a way out of its mess is imaginatively called American Signs) it’s impossible not to give her every utterance the attention deserved by someone working to finally effect world peace, and an end to global hunger.

The setting of depressed Ohio sneakily lets us, in Australia, off the hook of wondering whether it could happen here – and of course, it is. And that the Consultant is both American and of Asian immigrant descent gives another way out of feeling uncomfortable. That the discomfort is based on questionable ethics and dubious morals (and that’s a euphemistic whitewash of description anyway) there’s also the inherent racism to studiously avoid looking at.

At approximately 85 minutes American Signs is not as funny as it thinks it is, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a heavy smattering of nervous or guilty laughter as the audience is gently sucked in and spat out again, with interest. (There’s probably a jargon term for that.) The play is clever, taut, and has a lot to say, and as directed by Kenneth Moraleda, says it with clarity, perception, and, in tandem with Văn-Davies, some vivacity. Whether we know it anyway and ignore it, or need to know it or ought to know it, is something to take up with one’s own conscience. Damn, but that mirrored back wall is a bitch.



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