By Guy Webster

Eric Gardiner’s Prayer Machine at Red Stitch Actor’s Theatre opens on a hotel room much like any other. There’s the Wifi Code in Comic Sans stuck to the wall, a bed so well-made it resembles porcelain, and the window open to a decidedly grey view.

Seeing this opening tableau, my first thought was of artist Edward Hopper – the connoisseur of urban melancholy who so often emphasised the loneliness of spaces like these: hotel rooms, diners, cafes. Seems I was beaten to the punch – in an interview earlier this year, Gardiner cited Hopper’s works as inspiration for the play. Like Hopper, Prayer Machine is interested in loneliness and the ways in which modern experience serves to compound it. In Gardiner’s words, there is ‘a perfect union of loneliness and desire’ in Hopper (he cites Western Motel (1957) specifically) that he, along with Production Designer Bethany J. Fellows, have sought to replicate on stage.

In our opening tableau, a character (Patrick Williams) in a navy suit wanders around the white-walled hotel room, pulling the blinds down and sipping Gatorade with what might be nervousness (another nod to Hopper’s work – the seemingly impenetrable character; aloof, alienated in an empty space). Soon enough and another character (Joe Petruzzi) enters with his head down, fiddling with his zipper and avoiding eye contact with almost frustrating dedication.

Prayer Machine follows these two characters (who remain unnamed) as they attempt to rekindle a passionate romance they shared in high school. Now middle-aged, Williams’ character is a successful businessman of sorts (his occupation is never specified). Married with two kids, he is either drawing on a Green Tea-flavoured vape pen, or Googling answers to reveal the ignorance of his counterpart. In contrast, Petruzzi’s character is described as having ‘never truly lifted off’. He is in the same house, same job (again, unspecified) and he is, ostensibly, still completely enamoured by Williams’ character.

On paper, the story resembles a classic toxic high school romance doomed from the start. Williams’ character, played with stoic authority, is the Wall Street equivalent of the closeted jock; officious, emotionally detached, prone to cruelly manipulate Petruzzi’s character’s affections for him. Petruzzi’s character, played with heartbreaking sensitivity, is, on the other hand, slotted into the role of effeminate loner; insecure, ready to cater to the whims and cruelty of his high-school flame for the promise of intimacy.

But there is more to Gardiner’s piece than this description implies. By making both characters middle-aged, Gardiner effectively heightens the emotional weight of this relationship and the loneliness that seems to motivate it. Ultimately, it is a play that grapples with the cruel pangs of nostalgia. Both characters look back on their shared past mournfully, seemingly struck by a sense of having lost the energy, the promise, and the intimacy which their high school experience offered. There is something lacking in the reality these characters inhabit when compared to this shared past. There are splashes of the surreal peppered throughout the piece – birds slam into office windows with almost perfect dramatic timing, a montage of freeze frames is set to an 80s-style soundtrack, and characters speak in an unlimited supply of darkly comedic non sequiturs. Sound designer Amy Holley’s has created a soundscape that pairs perfectly with the accumulation of these nods to the surreal, and director Krystalla Pearce handles the play’s surrealism with careful restraint that invests in stillness and silence to great effect. Paired with Fellows’ Hopper-esque stage design, and the reality these characters begrudgingly inhabit appears marked with a curious sense of ‘wrongness’.

Whatever reality the play is set in is clear – or rather, realistic – only during moments of recollection. Gardiner’s electrifying imagery comes in hot at moments when characters seem in the grips of nostalgia. At times, the stage itself reflects this – lights surge at the memory of a red solo cup full of red wine at a high school party or when two hands touch holding the back of an Iphone (these characters, notably, rarely touch). The world these characters currently occupy is as grey as the colour given to their scheduled meetings in a Google Calendar. Details about their lives are without detail. We hear about a ‘wife’ and there are allusions to pictures of children and unspecified jobs. But these aspects are glaringly general – these children described as Blue-Eyed Son and Blonde-haired daughter; these jobs unnamed.

But then we hear of their first romantic moment together, near an overpass right before Year 12 exams, and detail floods in, buoyed along by arresting images and immaculate descriptions – the McDonald arches behind his back look like Angel wings, the red solo cups have grooves in them to ensure they don’t slip out of his hands, the clove-flavoured cigarellos can be tasted on his mouth. These are moments of clarity, for us as much as for these characters. In the midst of these descriptions, the relationship between the two characters makes sense. Usually so unequal, so confounding, so toxic, their connection is palpable during these times of shared remembering.

Originally set to premier in early August, this is Red Stitch Theatre’s first production since reopening. As such, its losses, its sur-reality, and its affecting portrayal of loneliness, are compounded by our shared sense of looking back on lockdowns and relationships mediated via Zoom screens, or experiences ultimately lost to the pandemic. Such shared memory makes the sting of Prayer Machine that much sharper.

Williams and Petruzzi are brilliant. It is at times difficult to accept the chemistry that the play tells us exists, or existed once, between the pair. As if in testament this, two of the play’s most affecting moments are monologues delivered by each character with heart wrenching vulnerability. When they are together, they discuss intentional eating, flying to Japan, 9/11. They talk of a snake decomposing and its bones spelling out ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’. But in their monologues, they offer a sensitivity that almost aches with a desire for intimacy that seems was always beneath the surface of their conversations. That we are given access to these moments of sensitivity seem to be Gardiner’s final twist of the knife. Like the lonely figure in Hopper’s Western Motel (1957), we see and recognise the painful desire for connection that plagues both characters at these moments, and find ourselves, just like their attempts to relive their memories, powerless to resolve it.

Prayer Machine is playing at Red Stitch Actor’s Theatre until the 28th of November