Lally Katz was young and single when her US-based Jewish grandparents turned their hand to matchmaking. It had seemed to work with another grandchild — they had successfully paired him with the granddaughter of a couple living in the same retirement village — and Katz was next.
Unfortunately, the suitor selected was from Singapore and it didn’t work out; years later, however, as the playwright was brainstorming for new material, the experience floated to her mind.
“It was always a really fun family story,” Katz tells Review during the final rehearsals of her new production, Minnie & Liraz, a play that follows several eccentric residents living together in a Melbourne retirement home.
“My grandmother match-made my cousin with another lady’s granddaughter who was in the home, so then later I was like: ‘ Why don’t you match-make me?’ They tried with this guy, this really sweet guy, but he was in Singapore so it was a little far away.
“I would stay with my own grandparents in their retirement village a lot. I was very, very close to them, and when I was there I was also thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, there are so many great characters here. This is such a great story’ … and when my grandmother passed away I thought: ‘Oh, I should write this play.’ ”
The production, a Melbourne Theatre Company play commissioned by the Australian Writers Guild, revolves around the events leading up to a national seniors bridge tournament at a Caulfield retirement village in Melbourne’s southeast.
At a “life celebration” for her former bridge partner at the Autumn Road Retirement Village, refined, old-fashioned Minnie is lamenting her lack of grandchildren, only to be interrupted by a motorised scooter driven by the flamboyant Liraz.
Minnie has consistently refused to play bridge with Liraz — the pair are polar opposites — until Minnie is introduced to Liraz’s sweet, sightly awkward physicist grandson, the perfect match for her principal granddaughter.
Though romance is at the play’s heart, Katz says the card game favoured by Australia’s elderly also became an unlikely breeding ground for dramatic material.
“(Bridge is) actually so intense and the partnerships are so intense. If someone makes a mistake, the fury afterwards: it’s so full of drama and subtext,” says the 37-year-old.
“We went to the Kew bridge club while I was writing it, and they were just amazing. They had us play against two ladies and it was fascinating. When we walked in it was as if we’d walked into a very, very dramatic play.”
It’s not entirely new ground for Katz. The US-born playwright, who moved from New Jersey to Canberra when she was eight, rose to attention on the Australian arts scene in 2011 with acclaimed play Neighbourhood Watch, which starred theatre veteran Robyn Nevin as elderly Hungarian immigrant Ana, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with her neighbour, a young woman called Catherine.
In Katz’s new play, she returns to similar themes, emphasising how inspirational and underused the stories of older people can be in modern drama.
“I’ve always loved elderly characters, and I think that in our society we don’t spend all that much time with the elderly, and they have such an interesting story to tell. They’ve been themselves now for so many years, so they make such strong characters,” says Katz.
“I think it’s so important to tell women stories and not just like the 20-something girls … I just loved writing about the elderly. To me, I thought: retirement village. That’s a really fun setting. There’s so much drama there and people just say the funniest stuff.”
The play was commissioned by one of Katz’s biggest fans, media executive Kim Williams.
The former News Corp Australia chief executive, who has been a keen promoter of the arts for many years, awarded Katz the commission through the guild, giving her the freedom to develop it with a theatre company of her choice. Katz says she sat on the commission for two years, as she tried to decide what would be the best thing to write about.
“I couldn’t make up my mind,” Katz writes in the program notes. “And finally it was getting too embarrassing seeing Kim Williams at events when I still owed him a play so I had to write it. And then my grandparents passed away and I realised it had to be this play.”
In the title roles, MTC has cast Nancye Hayes, who has dominated Australian musical theatre for more than five decades, BritishAustralian actress Sue Jones, most recently known for her role in the ABC comedy Upper Middle Bogan and Winners & Losers’ Virginia Gay.
The premiere of Minnie & Liraz will be the first of two premieres by Katz to hit the Australian stage this year. Atlantis, a semi-autobiographical play featuring five women acting different characters throughout Lally’s life — her grandparents included — will premiere at the Belvoir theatre in Sydney in October, rounding off an incredibly busy few years for the playwright as she has extended into television and film.
Her one-woman show Stories I Want to Tell You in Person (directed originally by AnneLouise Sarks, the notable dramaturge who is also directing Minnie & Liraz) was adapted for television and aired on the ABC last year.
She is also heading to Los Angeles soon to sit in the writers room and contribute to a new comedy pilot.
It’s a professional whirlwind, which Katz is happy to be at the centre of. “I hope this year to do a combination, TV and film and theatre.” she says. “This is my dream.”
opens at Melbourne Theatre Company on May 18. Review’s Bridge column appears on Page 35.
THE ELDERLY MAKE SUCH STRONG CHARACTERS LALLY KATZ
Playwright Lally Katz hopes to juggle stage, film and TV this year