Fluorescent Adolescents: A Review of Satisfied Customers
Shannon Friday reviews Satisfied Customers, a new play by Ben Wilson (I'll Be Fine, Fred Is Cold) about love, loss, desperation and mediocre pop-rock.
The horrifically, hilariously janky song that opens Satisfied Customers – based on bandleader Marcus’ deep, meaningful experience with a bum who tried to cadge a cigarette off him – is riddled with amateur rock band tropes. Undertalented and over-ambitious Marcus can’t cue the cutoff, blaming everyone else for the song’s weirdness. Arrhythmic drummer Jess can’t keep the beat. Instead of a bass, Amy’s plucking her beloved violin, and talented but timid pianist Paul is just there to make friends. But Amy’s mantra-spouting, insurance-selling dad Kenneth gives the band a chance to write his company’s new jingle all the same. The pressure soon overwhelms our not-so-Fab Four, though, as Amy and Marcus’ differing motives – and their competition for Kenneth’s favor – reveal the cracks running through the band.
Satisfied Customers - the show, not the band that the show’s about – feels like that song ‘Let’s Dance to Joy Division’ by The Wombats: all urgent and jerky rhythms, clever references, and a kind of desperate irony designed to hide its earnestness. Ben Wilson’s writing has its own driving force, like a weird combination of Oscar Wilde and Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia. He bounces between witty comedy, absurd musical situations, and urgent existential/personal arguments.
Freshman director Keegan Bragg and the cast really make the most of the comedy; they careen into punchlines, not letting up for a second. An extended brainstorming sequence – “lets get high and make shit” – is comic genius, from the extravagant fight that steamrolls through the band’s garage headquarters to Paul’s rambling, sincere plea for everyone to stop calling him Ed (after that singer). Satisfied Customers is incredibly fun and funny moment to moment, whether we’re watching Kenneth run circles around Marcus with his marketing-speak or the final, saccharine-sweet closing song.
On the flip side, so many of the conversations have a similar rhythm and structure that Wilson flattens out the relationships, and a lot of the interpersonal conflict feels jammed-in or is revealed through scenes that tell instead of showing. For example, when ex-bandmate, now-rock star Sam (also Staijen-Leach) pays a visit, the scene feels like it’s fighting between satirizing successful celebrities and telling us what we need to know about each character’s insecurities.
An extended brainstorming sequence – “lets get high and make shit” – is comic genius, from the extravagant fight that steamrolls through the band’s garage headquarters to Paul’s rambling, sincere plea for everyone to stop calling him Ed (after that singer).
Sam is stuffed with self-importance but still spouting homilies to humility, a parody of the wealthy celebrity ‘still in touch’ with his roots. However, he bristles when his old friends suggest that they can - and one day will - join Sam on his pedestal rather than just worship him while he’s up there. In retaliation, Sam spells out the flaws of each character in turn; they passively take his criticisms on the chin. Staijen-Leach hurtles through through hurtful and detailed content, emphasizing the ends of his sentences. While that pace is so useful for highlighting punchlines, it obscures the different ways Sam approaches or needles the other characters based on their insecurities. The whole scene feels like one big info dump, the actors struggling to crowd reactions in around the edges. The rhythm overwhelms the relationships; the scene tells us an awful lot about how each character functions, but it doesn’t feel like Sam actually knows the people he’s talking to.
That scene rings false, but that’s not to say Wilson, Bragg and the cast are avoiding character work. Ingrid Saker’s Jess is all wannabe 80s-throwback-punk with her faux hawk, Joan Jett eyeliner and black jean shorts over netted tights. Saker plays Jess with acerbic wit, calling Paul out for his Sheeran-clone style and Sam for his selfish insecurity. But she also contrasts Jess’ acidity with an acceptance of her own ineptitude. Jess is grounded; she can withstand Sam’s verbal assault as a result and, at once sharp and caring, use her wit to defend her friends. And Isaac Thomas’ Paul is full of nervous energy, even when stoned out of his gourd. He’s desperate for both respect and kindness, but anxious to take the steps needed to gain either. Both Saker and Thomas stand out as a result, finding nuance in their limited stage time.
Because everyone talks pretty much the same way, there’s not heaps of room for personal subtext. That’s a shame because Wilson isn’t just trying to fuel interpersonal conflict, but to comment on why people create music and the ethics of using someone’s personal experiences to create. It’s aiming for something like Yasmin Reza’s Art, where each person’s backstory feeds into their opinions and highlights the stakes for each person in their music and their creations.
Wilson hides a key piece of information from both the audience and most of the characters, though. We need this detail to understand the conflict, but he saves it for a late-play bombshell drop. The fact that we don’t know exactly what everyone is squabbling over, combined with the relative lack of shade in how they’re squabbling, means there’s not enough room for either the interpersonal or thematic conflicts to play out. All that resolution gets squished into the final five minutes, post-bombshell.
As a result, I can’t really track my attachments to the characters or how those are influencing my read on the show’s ethical conflict. Satisfied Customers feels like its opening song: funny, ambitious and undoubtedly personal, but a bit janky in the execution. All of the pieces are there, somewhere. They just aren’t quite lining up yet.
Satisfied Customers runs from 5 to 14 October at BATS Theatre.
Tickets available here.