Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Michael Healey’s Courageous, which just opened at the Tarragon, is the second of a planned trilogy inspired by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which began with 2006’s excellent Generous. Like its predecessor, Courageous is an ensemble piece that combines multiple inter-connected short plays to examine some complicated and morally grey situations and ideas. Unlike Generous, it doesn’t really work. Basically an evening of two vaguely related one-act plays, separated by an intermission, the whole event adds up to something slightly less than one good time.
Act One is mostly about two gay couples. Brian is a high-powered lawyer engaged to be married to the milquetoastish Martin. Tom marries couples at city hall, sometimes with the help of his Sudanese boyfriend, Arthur, as official witness. But when Brian and Martin show up at Martin’s office, keen to tie the knot, they are met with resistance by Tom, who refuses to marry same-sex couples because of his Catholic beliefs, despite being a total ‘mo himself. These ideas, halfheartedly masquerading as characters, strut and posture for an hour or so, don’t resolve much of anything, and leave. And none of these gay men (who, it’s worth noting, are quite obviously written, directed, and performed exclusively by straight men) are close to realistic or relatable in any way. Sure, there are plenty of religious gays, but how many completely retain the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality while at the same time living out well-adjusted lives in Toronto, apparently never touched by any particular moments of inner conflict or self-doubt? And how many of those would decide to take on, as a profession, performing civil marriages in a country where gay marriage is a fact? The whole scenario is bogus, which, more than the red herring of “human rights,” is the real recurring theme of this play. It’s bogus that Brian would book a lunch meeting for an hour after his wedding. It’s bogus that he and Martin wouldn’t just wait a half-hour for someone else to perform their service, as Tom suggests, and instead embark on a months-long legal battle against Tom. It’s bogus when we witness borderline-offensive stock character foreigner Arthur “seduce” Martin in a scene that’s about as erotically charged as the average Metro Morning. But the most offensively bogus part about this story is that it reduces the issue of gay rights—something that’s actually kinda still a big deal in a lot of places—to a petty argument between a couple of selfish, entitled queens.
After the intermission, we are told that the previous story is over (despite a complete lack of a dramatically satisfying conclusion), and that the play is now about a young straight couple so tenuously connected to the action of the first act, it feels like a narrative cheat. In Act Two, confirmed loser Todd routinely breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience about his life with angry and depressed wife Tammy, their baby, her slutty friend Lisa, and the affable Somalian refugee George who moves in next door and proceeds to take advantage of every opportunity Todd is too stupid or lazy to seize for himself. An extremely charismatic and often hilarious performance by Brandon McGibbon as Todd saves, if not quite redeems, the second half of Courageous, which is altogether less talky and more funny than the first. If Act One is a sort of castrated version of a Sky Gilbert play, Act Two is a sort of madcap version of a Judith Thompson play, full of poor idiots, postpartum depression, and bad life decisions. But, as in the first act, lip service to “issues” does surprisingly little in terms of creating realistic characters or situations, and the stakes always feel frustratingly low even when they should be at their height. Worst of all, Maurice Dean Wint (a perfectly capable actor) is forced to play his second Magical Negro character of the evening, and show the white folks how silly and backwards their way of thinking is.
Here’s the thing: we love Michael Healey! Truly, we do. Generous? Rune Arlidge? The Drawer Boy? Loved them all! And who didn’t enjoy his performance as kooky James Ryder on This Is Wonderland? In fact, we walked into the Tarragon last week fully expecting to love Courageous as well. We’re willing to call it a mis-step and say “better luck next time,” but his current show’s confused message, and surprising ineptitude in the portrayal of any characters who aren’t straight and white, leaves us feeling, well, a bit discouraged.
Courageous continues until February 7.