The dead metaphor in George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor is the term “freelancer.” As government bureaucrat Oliver Denny explains, it originally referred to a knight in the joust who didn’t belong to any particular family or military—a free lancer. For those without a full-time employer (and there seem to be more and more of them every day), this is a pretty bad-ass piece of information to bring with you out of the theatre. Unfortunately, there’s very little else in this production that feels new—although the play, on now as part of the Off-Mirvish series, does have a long list of positive qualities pulling in its favour.
George F. Walker, an iconic Canadian playwright known for his satire, wrote and directed this story of a young Afghanistan war veteran, Dean Trusk (Noah Reid), who served as a sniper. (The country he fought for is never specified, but there are suggestions it might have been the U.S.) When he returns home, he feels increasingly desperate: work is scarce, his soon-to-be ex-ex-wife Jenny (Haley McGee) is pregnant, and his father Hank (Eric Peterson) has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Dean meets with Denny (Michael Healey), who sets him up with a job as an assistant for Oliver’s wife, Helen (Julie Stewart), an ultra right-wing politician in the middle of an election. As Helen’s power trip escalates and she alienates both her employees and her family, Dean is tempted to use a secret to ruin her campaign. But another offer that would make use of the skills he practiced overseas comes along and provides him with a much more lucrative option.
Though known primarily as a playwright, Walker also built a career writing for TV shows such as Living in Your Car, This Is Wonderland, and The Newsroom (no, not that one, this one). Walker’s latest play certainly reflects his TV experience, filled as it is with short scenes of snappy dialogue and blackout transitions. (Seemingly tailor-made for commercial breaks—perhaps Walker is suggesting a new revenue stream for theatre companies?) Of course, there are also several faces onstage familiar to TV audiences: Eric Peterson excels as the churlish Hank, a character not dissimilar to Oscar from Corner Gas; Noah Reid, known from TV roles on Degrassi: The Next Generation, Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, and the original voice of Franklin, gives Dean a charming softer side; and Julie Stewart, of Queer as Folk and Cold Case, shows the biggest range when flexing her funny bone.
Peterson, Stewart, McGee, and Healey manage to deliver impressive portrayals of characters who are drawn far too broadly even for satire, and occasionally get stuck in awkward scene structures—we spend a good portion of the time hearing half a phone conversation between Jenny and her mother, for example, and the play ends on a jarringly unsatisfying note. Then there’s Nancy Beatty, as Hank’s wife Frannie Trusk, in a role so inconsequential to the plot that this review could have omitted her completely.
The play has moments charged with anger, including one memorable outburst from Hank towards Helen, the result of both his tumour and a lifetime of political angst. Walker succeeds in conveying themes related to the way physical warfare crosses over into the political and economic worlds of a “peaceful” society—and there is something delicious about giving Canadian theatre icons vile dialogue and unsavoury subject matter. But if this sitcom-like play were actually on television, we probably would have changed the channel.