The Canadian premiere of Christopher Shinn's Other People is another story about unhappy young people in the 90s that operates on the notion that the better it is, the worse you feel.
At one point during Christopher Shinn’s Other People, on now at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, one character recounts how a former lover said he “fucks like a Calvin Klein model.” This reveals of the play’s key characteristics: first, that it’s shamelessly a thing of the 1990s, and second, that it wasn’t only underwear models of the time that bore the trademark vacant, unflinching stare.
Other People tracks five characters who live and work in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, either trying to love, be loved, make art, or measure how well they’re doing (but not in laughter, strife, or cups of coffee). Stephen (Ben Lewis) is a young aspiring playwright making ends meets writing blurb movie reviews for an online magazine. His roommate Petra (Tatiana Maslany), a poet and student, has recently returned to the city after a stint stripping in Japan to make money, but quickly takes it up again where she meets a rich older, Man (Mike McPhaden) obsessed with getting to know her. Also crashing on Stephen and Petra’s couch is Stephen’s ex Mark (Indrit Kasapi), a screenwriter whose first major deal led to a cocaine addiction, rehab, rediscovery of the power of Christ, and the need to help an attractive and mysterious street youth named Tan (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett).
Called “a cutting-edge comedy” by the London Evening Standard, there certainly are a few moments—in Stephen’s anxiety or Petra’s aloof wit—that add a bit of lightness to the script. But if you’re planning on going, make sure the only date you have afterward is with a good friend and a bottle of wine. Director Aaron Willis took his inspiration from Shinn, quoted in interviews as saying the play is about people’s inability to love each other. Consequently, all of the characters in Other People struggle with the concept of love and their expression of it, whether in the physical comfort of a hug (or more), a homemade card, or simply saying the words out loud. As Petra explains, “Life is other people,” who they ultimately let down, and in so doing, themselves as well. Womp, womp.
The story has been told before, though perhaps not in a script this dire or self-aware (Petra openly chastises the well-known Broadway show that romanticizes the young, noble, starving New York artist we that alluded to previously), but what is striking is the play’s simplicity: it’s a chronological story of real people, in a real city, with real problems, and a beginning, middle, and end. There’s a simple set, effective lighting, straightforward direction, and a nostalgic soundtrack that properly grasps the mood (a great use of “#1 Crush” by Garbage, in particular). This is a rarity in Toronto independent theatre. But Shinn’s script requires nothing more. The characters’ internal struggles, strongly performed by most of the cast, are enough to keep the audience’s attention.
Maslany, as Petra, in particular deftly handles Shinn’s script. Her dense monologues about art, pain, and modern life could easily become exaggerated performance piece, but her approachability and casualness instead give them greater power, and rein them in so they match the style of the play. This contrasts Lewis, whose Stephen is too often flying at a manic pace to be a fully sympathetic character.
Other People makes for a dramatic evening and post-show discussion, but without the lasting impact one might expect. When the sun rises the next morning, you can still get up, get dressed, and live your life, and the play is less a revelation and more like a one-night stand.