Who knew a table tennis table could double as a time machine? To watch Sam Steiner’s characters bop a ball back and forth—ga-donk-donk-ga—is to fall into an unthinking trance. Minutes barely register. Time melts away.
It’s a gorgeous centrepiece in a gorgeous little play. In an old air raid shelter at her old family home, Cath’s sorting through her late mother’s stuff. Her boyfriend Cal's helping, passing the time with ping pong and word games, but at 32-and-a-bit, Cath’s about to surpass her mum’s age to the second: a milestone as minute as it is massive. Where’s her life going? It’s two questions in one.
Both are thrown into focus by 18-year-old Mia, a junior tennis pro who’s not yet learned to wear life lightly. Looking up to Cath like a long-lost big sister, her seriousness contrasts with their studied silliness. And yet, all of them are hiding behind facades, sheltering from something in this corrugated iron cocoon.
A meditation on our experiences of time, A Table Tennis Play has an Annie Baker-ish charm. Little happens, lots changes, but Steiner takes such care of his characters, allowing their anxieties, insecurities and oddities to emerge, that we follow suit. He stirs meticulous images into the mix—malt whisky that matures just as we do, vinyl records that sound better with crackles—so that meaning gradually comes to cohere. In Ed Madden’s beautifully judged, brilliantly acted production, a play that takes its time comes up like a bruise.