Over a cup of tea at Sydney's Wharf Theater, Brendan Cowell is talking about the time he gave up drinking for 11 months in 2005. "And I didn't even have one of those brandy chocolates," says the 30-year-old playwright and actor, his laconic bearing becoming increasingly animated. "I didn't have a drop, because I favor a couple of drinks, and my whole world just changed in the most beautiful fashion and in the strangest and darkest as well." Around this time in the interview, Cowell's hand accidentally clips the tape recorder, sending a pair of sunglasses flying off the table. "Whoops," he says with a disarming laugh. "Obviously I'm a bit shaken up by all that. Yeah, it was an intense time." Intensity leavened with lashings of unpredictability and philosophical musings pretty much sum up the rising career of Brendan Cowell. Until now he's best known as the anxiety-addled taxi-driving Tom on Love My Way, the globe-trotting TV drama about Sydney-style family dysfunction on which he began life as one of the show's writers. But whether it was turning sober or 30, the past 18 months have seen this wunderkind transform into Renaissance Man. As artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company's new experimental wing, Wharf 2LOUD, Cowell has become Barnum to a new breed of theater writing with its "Vow of Clarity," for which he leads by example. Premiering on April 24, his new play Self Esteem is a cracker: a suburban satire which splits the seams of political correctness, returning Australian theater to its Jacobean roots. Then little over a week later, local cinemagoers will get their first glimpse of Cowell the leading man in writer-director Matthew Saville's haunting police drama, Noise, in which he plays a police constable battling the hearing disorder tinnitus while unwittingly caught up in the hunt for a Melbourne serial killer. It's a tough call, but Cowell somehow turns this fuzzy antihero into someone strangely likeable and oddly iconic. An improvised scene where he practices cricket strokes in front of a mirror wearing just underpants, joint in hand, seems as Australian as Jack Thompson wielding sheep-shearing scissors in Sunday Too Far Away. But as naturally gifted as he is as an actor (untrained, he studied communications), Cowell's instincts are even sharper as a writer. It was at university, after seeing David Rabe's 1984 play Hurlyburly, when he decided to become a playwright. "The idea of this man screaming at a television, on cocaine, just having a dialogue with the newsreaderI remember watching that scene and just wanting to write something like that, wanting to write this psychotic angry male spree," says Cowell, who premiered his first play, Men, at Sydney's shoebox-sized Old Fitzroy Theatre in 2000. "I have so much that I need to get out." Six plays on, and three major awards later (2001's Patrick White Award for Bed, 2003's Griffin Award for Rabbit, and 2005's Philip Parsons Award for the forthcoming Ruben Guthrie), Cowell should rattle the main-stage rafters with Self Esteem. A carnivalesque comedy set in the near future when Australian families are subject to in-house lifestyle consultants called CHADs, Cowell was inspired by the upsurge of Pentecostal churches and self-help industries around him, to ask, "Why do so many of us need this betterment god? What is it that we lack in ourselves?" To find out, he sends a cloned, twenty-something emissary of CHAD into the house of retired pest controller Rob, his senile mother Ethel, neurotic wife Pam, ideological daughter Lucy and obese, bondage-wearing son Rick. It's a brilliant premise and not entirely subscriber-friendly, with scenes and language that would bring a litany of viewer warnings on sbs. But there is also something bracingly therapeutic in Cowell's frequently funny spree. Audiences will also notice that CHAD is played by Toby Schmitz with an American accent, and encoded in the drama is a political critique of Australia's relationship with the U.S., but one that doesn't follow the usual President Bush-bashing. "Well, America's our CHAD at the moment," says Cowell. "And it's not their fault, it's ours. That's what the play is presenting, I guess, in a very unsubtle, wild and completely hilarious manner." Born and bred in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, home to 2005's Cronulla beach riots, Cowell would seem to have a unique take on the forces shaping Australian society from within and without. "We have so far to go in this country," he says. "We're so young but we don't seem to celebrate that in the right way. We seem to fear our youth. So we quickly want to get old. We quickly want to take on these formulated ideas from the past instead of celebrating our naivety, and growing confidence from choosing who we are." If Cowell places Australia before the mirror in Self Esteem, with his next work, he'll be putting himself center stage. Written for Neil Armfield's hallowed Company B, Ruben Guthrie follows the life of a young TV scriptwriter as he enters Alcoholics Anonymous, and was penned during Cowell's 11 months back on the wagon. "It was in that [turning-30] Saturn return-phase, if that exists, so it was a very reflective, very confronting year," says Cowell, in another unguarded moment. As Noise writer-director Matthew Saville points out, "He doesn't throw up barriers to the world, or to himself, which makes him sort of exploratory." And a multi-tasked talent well worth discovering.