It’s true. Torontoist fave Daniel MacIvor has given up doing those kinds of plays. You know, those one-man marvels directed by Daniel Brooks and chock-full of magic realism, gorgeous minimalist design, and MacIvor’s own captivating performances? He’s had enough of those and has moved on to “play plays.” You know, linear narratives with multiple actors, realistic locations and resolvable conflicts? And that’s exactly what we get with How It Works, which is being performed in Toronto for the first time and currently running at Tarragon. Oh, sure, we get a few flashbacks, but for the most part, this is a straightforward story about a family. Rough-and-tumble Maritimer Christine is nothing like police officer Al’s cosmopolitan ex-wife, Donna, and he likes it that way. But as she becomes closer to his family, Christine becomes aware that there’s something very wrong with his daughter Brooke and decides to help the troubled teen in a way her parents are not able.
The subject matter occasionally veers into After-School Special territory, which MacIvor is aware of: Brooke complains when her father starts talking “like a magazine.” But his typically tight, funny and idiosyncratic dialogue prevents the show from becoming schmaltzy. The stellar cast doesn’t hurt either. Caroline Gillis completely inhabits Christine; we believe every word she says. And Fiona Highet pulls off some wicked line deliveries both as present-day career mom Donna and, in a hilarious flashback, ditzy 80s party girl Donna. And pretty young thing Bethany Jillard (pictured) has to be about the most adorable teenage drug addict we’ve ever seen, completely capable of playing tough and vulnerable simultaneously.
How It Works cannot be considered MacIvor’s most ambitious work. It’s safer, but also more cohesive than some of his other plays. The direction, which he is also in charge of, is mostly pedestrian, but not unsuited to the simplicity of the story. It seems silly to complain about a show like How It Works, which really is better than a lot of other similar plays out there. It’s got a solid cast and brilliant dialogue, and its story is deftly plotted. But it simply lacks the knockout punch quality of the one-man Da Da Kamera shows. Here’s hoping we’ll eventually be able to chalk it all up to growing pains and MacIvor’s future work will combine his new writing style’s form with his old style’s urgency, potency and punch.