Do Not Disturb - Please Go Away
Four playwrights are asked to make something out of two characters, themes of "sex, illicit love and regret", and a budget hotel room setting in the "Frangipani Palace Hotel". The result is a critically acclaimed TV series, and also a sometimes overblown, mostly dull stage production: Do Not Disturb - Late Checkout, Please, performed over two one-hour shows at The Esplanade Theatre Studio.
Do Not Disturb opens with Eleanor Wong's Duet (**), a treacly and pointless playlet about nostalgia, containing two starkly different characters who, well, remain starkly different as they try to recapture the glory of their performing heyday. Celine and Carol are primary school buddies whose singing act, "The Dazzle", disbands after Carol secures a "real" job and gets married. Two years later, Celine asks Carol to stand in for her ill singing partner as part of her second-rate gig at the hotel; Carol acquiesces. This is all it takes to send them romping, squabbling and making up in Wong's haphazard sketch of an unlikely friendship.
It is unclear if Wong is aiming for naturalistic drama or a more contemporary surrealism; in any case, she succeeds at neither. Initially, the actors lurch from one Broadway tune to another, embellishing the introductory sequence with a needlessly cutesy flourish. Serene Chen and Karen Lim can't quite gel together and end up tripping over each other's lines, generating an awkward chemistry that exacerbates the already contrived setting. An attempt to play off each other's warring personalities is similarly thin. As the playlet progresses, the duo rattle off their own accounts of school events, past performances and other memorable moments simultaneously and at breakneck speed. The novelty of this technique wears off after awhile: the end result is an unintelligible mess of ideas that blunts the characters' most essential nuances. Chen and Lim do what they can with the material's uncertain blend of jokiness and drama, arguing their hearts out over matters of little substance.
In the final scene, Celine and Carol rush off the stage to perform, leaving a bed with make-up littered all over its sheets and luggage hastily perched beside it. The promise of this image - to pin down transience - is something this playlet obviously aspires, but never manages, to achieve.
The only real gem in Do Not Disturb is Real Actors, (***1/2) Ken Kwek's intriguing playlet about two actors - one a seasoned, slightly jaded veteran; the other a budding young starlet - who meet to rehearse sex scenes for Lee Ang's upcoming war film. Real Actors is not particularly ambitious in terms of its premise or its function-over-form visual style. But tucked between the jokes and double entendres is a surprisingly textured look at the fantasy world of the stage, which becomes more real than the actors' own lives. After a passionate kissing scene midway through the playlet, Timothy Nga's character asks, "Are you seeing anyone?" His question is both funny and cruel; a request for information to smooth over the actors' discomfiture, but also an unwitting advance that heightens the tension of the moment.
Nga delivers a marvelously understated performance, capturing Kwek's fast and frothy comedy through his charming, awkward gestures and deeply furrowed eyebrows. Joanna Dong's performance is less remarkable: as the innocent and unironic foil to Nga's increasingly tormented character, her enthusiasm is bracing and a little jarring. There is also in the script some unnecessary pontification about film acting, so that some parts of the play feel more like an acting lesson than a fully fledged drama. Nonetheless, Kwek's writing is mostly quick and sharp, and the jokes skitter past, vanishing almost before you can catch them.
Any hope that the second night of Do Not Disturb would pick up where the first night had left off was immediately dashed by Brunch (**), Kelvin Tong's tedious and insipid tale of infidelity. A man and woman discover that their spouses are having an affair, trample through the stages of hurt, anger and denial, then fall into bed and each other's arms. Tong toys with the sequence of these events, so that the narrative unfolds backwards, and so that the audience might find some reason to care about his perfectly mediocre account of adultery breeding more adultery.
There is nary an honest ring to Tong's curiously inverted portrayal of an age-old cliché, which sees its pair of characters stomp around the room, partake in meaningless silences or lunge at each other with inexplicable venom. Perhaps more painful than sitting through this time warp of an affair is watching two tremendously talented actors attack their severely limited roles with a tightly wound ferocity, trying to make their characters hold interest even in situations that seem utterly contrived. Both Janice Koh and Daniel Jenkins prove to be actors who can breathe life into even the sketchiest of material, wholeheartedly attacking Tong's hit-and-miss jokes (something about shampoo brands and post-coital smoking), and sometimes generating an emotional charge that transcends Tong's threadbare script.
The rigorously somber mood persists in Teacher's Day (*), Kaylene Tan's overreaching and deeply depressing drama about a teacher and student who meet in a budget hotel room to (almost) have illicit sex. Admittedly, I really only watched half of Tan's playlet, having spent the other half staring at my clenched fists and curled toes in dread and embarrassment.
Mr. Pereira (K Rajagopal), self-proclaimed "gatekeeper to the world outside", meets his student (Muhammad Nur Hadri) at an ungodly hour at the budget hotel before school reopens. There is a fair bit of gratuitous kissing action, some clunky sexual verbiage (Mr. Pereira's plaything is "throbbing and numb... burning up from the inside out") and a whole lot of philosophising about nothing. Cue false and hollow lines like, "That nothing means something!" or the wayward teacher's exclamation, "I have responsibilities!", all but screaming the irony into our faces.
Tan also wedges highbrow poetry into the dialogue, suggesting either acute desperation or extreme pretension. In one of the most ill-conceived monologues of the year, Hadri moans about the "zero-millimetre proximity" he shares with a slumbering Mr. Pereira, then kicks up quite a fuss about how the latter is "not kind", even if he is "magically tactile". Acting may require a certain degree of self-abasement, but there is so much wrong with this performance that it's hard to know where to begin.
Teacher's Day can't even carry straightforward drama with any coherence; there is minimal characterisation (we know as much about the characters from watching the performance as we do from reading the programme), and the mixture of reality and fantasy is so poorly meshed that you start doubting your own state of mind. As this playlet labours through its final revelation, Rajagopal works himself up into a nihilistic funk, resulting in an anguished, moody stare that, in all likelihood, was mirrored by even the most tolerant among the audience.
Save for Ken Kwek's Real Actors, there is very little that is stage-worthy in Do Not Disturb. Maudlin (Duet), trite (Brunch) and sometimes downright painful (Teacher's Day), Do Not Disturb is an ill-advised, and frightfully expensive way of spending precisely an hour (excluding the interval) at The Esplanade. You'd be better off listening to Christmas carols at the concourse, and eavesdropping on people's conversations.
Note: Eleanor Wong is a professor at NUS Law School, where this reviewer currently studies.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /