By BRUCE DENNILL
The Dead Tinder Society / Directed by Lesedi Job / Studio, Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
The end of something precious is always devastating. It has to be, otherwise whatever it is wasn’t precious. Devastated people do strange things. Things that are out of character and yet revealing of character. And what is revealed may, curiously, be precious.
The Dead Tinder Society’s protagonist Jody Green (Sharon Spiegel-Wagner) is a a mother of two in her late thirties whose life has fallen apart in the wake of a particularly tasteless (inasmuch as a grading system in this context has any value) affair between her husband and her erstwhile best friend. She stumbles on stage as the play begins, tipsy and apologetic, and explains how all of this happened, why it hurts, and how she feels about the future.
That this is done as a frank conversation between the character and the audience is the first mark of what becomes an enduring thread of the play: authenticity. Playwright Ashleigh Harvey’s writing, director Lesedi Job’s subtle shaping of the words and her cast’s use of the text, and Spiegel-Wagner’s delivery, from this shared soliloquy onwards, all feel real. Exaggerated for effect, sure – it’s theatre; there’s intent to entertain – but genuine.
That makes the piece sound worthy and cordial, which it is, but it is also very funny indeed. In fact, in the extended interactions between Spiegel-Wagner and the audience, there are suggestions that developing those sections of the play could result in a layered, droll one-woman stand-up routine (for accomplished performer Harvey, whose words they are; or for Spiegel-Wagner, should Jody as a character have a life beyond The Dead Tinder Society).
As it is, these moments provide Spiegel-Wagner with an early platform to show off her extensive comic chops, which mesh a comfort with the dialogue –heartfelt, sometimes caustic and occasionally flat-out vulgar, as one might expect of a scorned woman who’s had a few glasses of wine – with hilariously adept physical comedy (body movements and facial expressions that are the visual definition of ‘sarcasm’).
Keeping an eye on this outspoken but fragile individual falls to Ray (Mpho Osei-Tutu), Jody’s best friend and fellow – as the play opens, anyway – single person. The pair spend a good deal of time together, talking about relationships over endless glasses of wine and bottles of beer. Ray does his best to reinforce Jody’s brittle self-image; she does her best to play down his observations. Ray asks her to help him understand what it is that she needs; she points out (correctly) that she does most of the opening up, while he continues to play his cards close to his chest.
It’s a complex but caring dynamic that will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a successful sitcom or a big-screen romantic comedy, but there is a touch more of the aforementioned authenticity in this instance, possibly because of the physical intimacy of the space. The Studio Theatre is not a big room, and as the volume of the onstage dialogue changes along with the emotional intensity, it’s not too much of a stretch to feel the audience leaning forward to catch a nuance, or nodding or grimacing when they recognise a detail from their own lives.
Indeed, during the performance under review, one woman a few rows from the stage couldn’t stop herself – during a sentence from Jody touching on (as it were) the subject of tantric sex – from yelling out a warning to the character, presumably based on an until-then private incident.
One of Ray’s strategies to help Jody get back on her feet is to introduce her to dating app Tinder. The site’s notoriety is an important part of the narrative: the characters and the audience know that it is more of a platform for hooking up than it is a likely spot to discover a soulmate. That knowledge adds both an adult edge and a tinge of heartbreak to proceedings.
The relatively explicit tone allows for a number of funny (and often disturbing, if the incidents have any basis in reality) scenes in which Jody meets with potential beaus, all played by Osei-Tutu, using different accents and affectations.
But the potential for pain introduces a poignancy that is perhaps at least as powerful as the script’s humour in the residue it leaves once you exit the theatre. As much as you laugh with – and at – Jody, and as much as you appreciate the depth of the friendship she and Ray share, and as tempting as it is to draw conclusions about what might happen to the characters individually or as a unit, The Dead Tinder Society is not a play about anyone finding redemption of any sort, be that a long-term partner, rock-solid inner strength, or even happiness, however you define that. Onstage, a woman is having a long, slow, subtle breakdown that will take time to heal, and a man is doing his best to support and restore his closest friend, with limited resources to hand, and emotional challenges of his own. As such, the piece’s denouement is hugely more satisfying than would generally be expected from what is a sassy, spicy comedy, where laughs are often allowed to trump meaning.
The play examines a single slice out of two people’s lives – much has come before, and much will develop afterwards. It’s an episode, not an epic, and it works well because of that, allowing its audience to laugh at the expense of the characters while also understanding, vicariously or on a direct personal level, that there are a great many Jodies and Rays around, and if we have a half-decent understanding of their circumstances and perspectives (which the play cleverly unpacks), we might be able to do right, as opposed to merely swiping right.