In How not to make it in America, young, Australian, would-be actor, Matt (James Smith), tells the stories and shares the memories of his time in New York circa 2001, in which he was trying to get a break in the acting world amid the backdrop of the November 11 attacks.

They say that some homes are architects’ homes, some dishes are chefs’ dishes, and this case, this play is an actor’s play. On opening night there was a buzz of nervous, anticipatory laughter from the actor-rich audience, who anticipated and then rewarded the minutiae of every fragment of Matt’s story; from turning up an audition with the wrong briefing, to the bravado-that-quickly-crumbles-to-self-deprecation when telling people he’s doing an off Broadway show, well, off off Broadway.

Playwright, Emily Steel, gave us a glimpse into this story during Decameron 2.0, for which she wrote a monologue arising from her experience “wasting” her youth chasing dreams in America in the 9/11 era. How not to make it in America is an extended development of the story, in which Steel flexes her writing muscles and has crafted a dense exploration of an underdog’s perspective of trying to “make it” while all around the world is crumbling and reforming.

Actor, James Smith, has been perfectly cast for this role, ironically. He at once has both the demeanour of that downtrodden, dream-led desperado cocooning himself with delusions of hope, while also having the poise, and blank canvas-like presence upon which he draws, creates, and projects character after character, emotion after emotion, with aplomb.

The combination of Steel’s splintered, glitch-art storyline, Smith’s disciplined ability to cut from monologue to dialogue and back again, and the Meg Wilson/Chris Petridis design elements of fractured renderings of the New York skyline projected across the set, is possibly the only way Theatre Republic could have captured the emotional and philosophical complexity of an on-the-ground experience of 9/11. Such is the immersive experience of this play, we hardly notice the sublime sound and composition crafted by Jason Sweeney. We hardly notice it because it complements and supports the narrative, it doesn’t demand attention.

Perhaps an unintended element of authenticity is the hideously uncomfortable seating of the Space Theatre, giving us a glimpse into the world of torture that developed in Guantanamo in the wake of the terrorist events of 9/11.

Twenty years on, the territory of 9/11 now seems safe enough to fossick through. In the hands of Steel, the terrifying actions of bad actors pursuing violent dreams form a bleak backdrop in front of which she is able to project and explore the timeless theme of an artist pursing their noble dream. And, inevitably, on this planet, at this time, we’re bound to witness these themes play out again and again, much like the groundhog nature of the story structure itself.

How not to make it in America is a demanding one-hander that showcases the breadth of Smith’s abilities and will reward your attention. Furthermore, buying any remaining tickets will be an act that won’t only support our recovering arts sector but will remind you that at the core of theatre is a player, who stands before us, draws us into an imagined world, and then takes us deep into a story.

How not to make it in America, Theatre Republic, Space Theatre, November 17-20, 2021. Photo credit: Thomas McCammon