Three Very Different Kinds of Laughter

Reviewed by Shelley Scott

For those familiar with Bryden MacDonald’s intense and unconventional earlier plays such as Whale Riding Weather (nominated for the Governor General’s Award in 1994), his newest work Odd Ducks will come as a surprise. Commissioned and premiered in 2012 by the Chester Playhouse Summer Theatre Festival in Nova Scotia, and dedicated to the playwright’s mother (“She loves a good laugh”), Odd Ducks is described on the cover as “a romp.” That’s as good a description as any for this breezy, light-as-air comedy about four forty-something patrons of the Odd Duck Pub in the east coast village of Tartan Cross. The east coast setting and the familiar, humorous bickering bring to mind Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge, while the emphasis on easily accessible entertainment evokes the popular comedies of Norm Foster or any number of television sitcoms. Much of the play’s enjoyment would come alive in production—in for example, the use of frequent “snippets of jukebox pop songs”—and would rely on skilful comic actors to make the four characters likeable as they move seamlessly from enacting various moments in their history together to addressing the audience directly. We are told repeatedly that Ambrose is both charming and irritating, an unemployed “roguish man-child” who dresses and behaves like a rock star, but it would be up to the actor to demonstrate that level of charisma. Ambrose’s foil and drinking buddy is solid, unexciting Freddy, who can’t seem to get a break at work or with women. Freddy lends Ambrose money and listens to his self-absorbed monologues with increasing exasperation. The two “boys” are paralleled by the “gals,” Mandy and Estelle. Ambrose carries on an affair with Mandy, trophy wife of a rich invalid named Walter whom we hear offstage but never see (he has some of the play’s funniest lines), and who dies early on. Ambrose then breaks up with Mandy at Walter’s funeral, precipitating the play’s big “incident”: Mandy gets drunk and shoots Ambrose at the Odd Duck—although, this being the kind of comedy it is, she in fact only grazes him with a BB gun. There to comfort Mandy is her maid, Estelle, a lesbian with a mysterious past in the big city. Estelle’s sexuality, and some hints in the script, lead to the over-the-top finish: Freddy rejects Ambrose’s sexual advances and the two “boys roll around beating the snot out of each other: clothes get ripped,” while “the girls make out passionately: clothes begin to fall away.” One could argue that MacDonald employs a useful strategy by winning over a summer theatre audience with the antics of conventional, recognizable characters and then inserting potentially risqué queer content, but any mildly subversive agenda is secondary to having “a good laugh.”

Morris Panych’s latest comedy, The Shoplifters features a similar cast—two men, two women—but aims more explicitly for a social message along with the laughs. Premiered in 2014 at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, The Shoplifters was a New Play Award winner from the Los Angeles-based Edgerton Foundation, which allows extended rehearsal time for American productions. The play had its Canadian debut in Calgary the next year. Panych’s play takes place in one location in real time and, unlike the other two plays under consideration here which engage with the audience, it adheres to strict realism and a conventional structure of scenes divided by blackouts within two acts. Veteran security guard Otto and over-zealous new guard Dom have apprehended veteran shoplifter Alma and her extremely nervous accomplice Phyllis, and the play unfolds in a series of interrogations and conversations between various combinations of the four. Dom—who is certainly comic but also a bit scary and out-of-control— tries to convert Phyllis to Christianity, while Alma tries to convert her to a greater sense of social activism and personal daring. Phyllis, however, is content with her modest life circumstances and leaves the scene at the end of the play no different than when she entered; similarly, Dom is content to continue in his simplistic understanding of right and wrong, albeit as a parking lot security guard. Otto and Alma reveal their longstanding cat-and-mouse game as guard and criminal has been, at least in part, played for the benefit of each other. They become a romantic couple in the course of the play; he has protected her throughout her career of theft and in turn, she makes sure he gets to keep the job he was about to lose for his liberal attitude towards thieves. Alma has been stealing in order to provide affordable sandwiches in her low-income neighbourhood, and both Alma and Otto have come to see that have-nots taking from a wealthy corporation may have its justification. Perhaps the political message and economic argument could be made more pointed in performance, but social critique remains muted by the fast-paced banter and low-stakes character arcs.

Winners and Losers by Marcus Youssef and James Long is a much different kind of comedy than the first two plays, one in which uncomfortable laughter at witty banter devolves into shock at the personal attacks we witness between the two performers. The impact on the spectator comes from what Jenn Stephenson, in her introduction, calls “authenticity effects.” Youssef and Long play themselves—Marcus and Jamie—and the play’s performance is a re-creation of a transcribed dialogue they improvised, with some parts of the show still open to improvisation. Premiered in Richmond, British Columbia, in 2012, the play has since been performed many times internationally, co-produced by the two artists own companies, Neworld and Theatre Replacement. We as readers or viewers are initially amused by their offhand and arbitrary pronouncements on a range of random topics; we are participating in a kind of game or event. Stephenson places the play in the contemporary practice of Theatre of the Real: the two actors do real things, like play ping pong and drink beer, so that when they eventually turn to a critique of each other as a winner or a loser, it feels personally real and truly dangerous. In its indictment of male competitiveness the play recalls Daniel MacIvor’s Never Swim Alone, and the structure is reminiscent of The Noam Chomsky Lectures by Daniel Brooks and Guillermo Verdecchia. While race and class issues are central throughout, one could argue that the final, most damaging accusations are about personal relationships between parents and children, so that, ultimately, one wonders what overarching point has been made for the audience to take away. The play feels thrilling and new in a way the other two plays under consideration do not, but in each there is an attempt to overthrow the expected: Estelle and Mandy and Alma and Otto overcome class differences to find love. Perhaps in Winners and Losers too, we see the friendship between the real-life Marcus and Jamie as a testament to the ability to collaborate and create, even across acknowledged (real-life) differences.

This review “Three Very Different Kinds of Laughter” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 253-254.

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