Content warnings: Why Young Men Run at 2am contains sexual references and coarse language.
Why Young Men Run at 2am has made its premiere at Ad Astra in Fortitude Valley, produced by the company’s Astra Nova youth and scriptwriting division. Written and directed by Pierce Gordon, this funny and fast-paced play is set in a Brisbane pawn shop and centres on the mystery of a missing man, but ultimately asks questions about family, identity, and the search for meaning.
Terry Schmidt Junior (or TJ, as he prefers to be known) is a travelling salesman for his father’s business, Schmidt’s Pawn and Laundry. TJ enjoys the transient lifestyle his job affords him, travelling down the east coast of Australia, but he is drawn back to Brisbane when his father, Terry Schmidt Sr, vanishes without a trace. When he arrives, TJ finds no clues about his father’s disappearance, but discovers that the pawn shop is under threat of being bought and bulldozed by a developer. With the help of his father’s right-hand man (and part-time private investigator), Knoll, and eccentric new employee Maureen, Knoll’s niece, TJ searches for answers and must decide whether he will fight to save his father’s business.
The small cast of dysfunctional characters in Why Young Men Run at 2am are bound by the fact that Terry Sr has let them down in some way. The play examines father-son relationships, with Terry’s absence as a father felt in TJ’s life well before his disappearance. The work also explored the hunt for human connection and purpose, as Maureen and TJ shared stories of travel and meaningful encounters with strangers. The strength of the script’s humour is in its details, such as Knoll’s contemplation of his name and Maureen’s exhaustive phone greeting for customers. Long, introspective conversations between TJ and Maureen established character priorities and built interpersonal tension throughout the work, but could have been shortened without losing any of this depth.
The action of the play occurred in a pawn shop on Brisbane’s Northside, and the story was anchored by a strong sense of place. Set design transformed Ad Astra’s black box theatre into the interior of Schmidt’s Pawn and Laundry, with the walls plastered in vintage advertisements and shelves stacked with miscellaneous items, from paintings to power tools. A live feed camera plugged into a television set (ah, the nostalgic buzzing of a time before flatscreens!) was used and a countertop dominated centre stage, with the actors using multiple entry and exit points throughout. Lighting design and changes in costuming indicated the passing of time, and a huge array of props were managed smoothly by the cast.
Gordon’s snappy, rapid-fire dialogue was skilfully delivered by the actors, with excellent timing. Lachlan Engeler played TJ with sullen emotionality, exasperated sarcasm, and simmering resentment; uncomfortable in his father’s shadow, but unwilling to forge a new path for himself beyond the safety net of the family business. Tom Coyle was brilliant in the role of Knoll, hilariously ricocheting between well-intentioned advice, oblivious enthusiasm, and spiralling conspiracy. Caitlin Hill brought balance to the trio with her grounded portrayal of Maureen. All three had excellent onstage rapport and spot-on comedic timing. Aurelie Roque joined the fray partway through the second act, as events began to escalate, bringing a ferocity and aloofness to the role of local business tycoon Colleen Worthington.
After a steady building of tension in the first half, establishing place and character relationships, the climactic reveal regarding Terry’s disappearance passed quickly, and in a scene full of exposition, so that I am not sure whether I misunderstood or somehow missed it entirely. The two core questions at the heart of the plot – What happened to Terry Sr? Will the pawn shop be forced to close? – were equally engaging, but this made it difficult to focus on one central narrative arc. In the same vein, parts of the script could have been pared back without a loss of character or plot development, leaving the strongest scenes drawn out for maximum impact (such as Knoll’s lengthy phone conversation with the local kebab shop) and allowing Gordon’s idiosyncratic characters and comedic writing to shine even brighter.
Why Young Men Run at 2am had a little bit of everything – romance, betrayal, comedy, absurdity, mystery – but at its heart was a story about forging your own path, played out by a cast of memorable, lovably dysfunctional characters with plenty of laughs.
Why Young Men Run at 2am will play at Ad Astra, Fortitude Valley, from 6 – 22 October 2022.