The latest comedy from Tony McNamara is a homage to screwball comedies of the likes of Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday.

We know this because the program features an essay on screwball comedies, not because the show itself gives us any clue. The Unlikely Prospect Of Happiness is pitifully short of comedy, although the casting of Pia Miranda (pictured) is definitely screwball.

To lay the blame entirely on Ms Miranda’s thin shoulders would be unfair, because the play itself is so weak and whining, an unusual misfire by a rising writing talent. McNamara’s The John Wayne Principle was a genuine success and his writing and directing of the film The Rage In Placid Lake won him an AFI award and two AWGIEs.

The plot is simple and yet implausible. Ben (Russell Dykstra) is being audited by Zo?Pia Miranda), a woman who recognises the power of her role and uses it to say inappropriate things like I fucked a fattie once and I love you. Ben’s marriage is in the doldrums, his mother pretends to have cancer to get attention and his brother is a compulsive gambler. Very early on we know we’re heading for a moment of straight male rebellion ?a American Beauty.

The play doesn’t work partly because Miranda is not a stage actor. On television and on film (Looking For Alibrandi) Miranda is riveting and warm and deserves a long career. On stage she has the emotional range, vocal skills and freedom of movement of an animatronic robot at Dreamworld. Her casting might pull non-theatre crowds into an auditorium, but it won’t get them coming back.

A more powerful actress in the role of Zo?ould not have substantially helped, as Ben’s dilemma is unbelievable and clich? The insubstantial duologues about the nature of happiness are boring and bring the action to a screeching halt and the foul-mouthed priest character is a desperate touch.

It’s hard to believe that this same theatre company staged the stunning Victory and the incredible Copenhagen, though I suspect both plays received considerably more support and a longer gestation period than this new Australian work.

The Unlikely Prospect Of Happiness by Tony McNamara plays at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, until 26 June. Phone 9250 1999.

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