Hannah Moscovitch's Problem Children
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Hannah Moscovitch’s Problem Children

A double bill full of domestic drama from Hannah Moscovitch, Canada's most in-demand playwright, reveals her strengths and weaknesses.

Joe Cobden and Michelle Monteith turn their flashlights on dark corners of two suburban homes in Little One. Photo by Nir Bareket.

Little One and Other People’s Children
Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue)
February 14 to March 17, 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m.
(In This World replaces Little One to March 24.)
stars 4andahalf24 and 2 5stars

Ask her at any time what she’s working on, and Hannah Moscovitch will probably rattle off commissions for a handful of major Canadian theatre companies, other work for an American group interested in associating itself with such a buzz-worthy playwright, and a radio drama or TV episode to boot. At 34 years old, Moscovitch is a name synonymous with what’s next in Canadian theatre, and Tarragon Theatre, the place that kicked off her success, is now celebrating her with a double bill of two plays about the more sinister side of family life.

The first play of the evening is the dark (in both colour and tone) thriller Little One, in which Moscovitch makes a case for only-child families. Aaron (Joe Cobden) and Claire (Michelle Monteith) are adopted siblings living in an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Ottawa. His folks died in a fire, while the fate of hers is unknown—she was found alone in an abandoned building. Whoever Claire’s parents were, they left their mark: she soon displays disturbing behaviour in class, towards animals, and towards a neighbourhood man. Big brother Aaron always ends up paying the price, whether it’s having his belongings destroyed by Claire or sacrificing sports and friends for family quality time and group therapy sessions.

Aaron transitions between the past and the present as he tells the story of growing up with his sister, whom he describes as “a monster” from the outset. Monteith makes that easy to believe as she creeps around the theatre, lit from underneath by a flashlight (not just campfire gimmickry, it reappears in a pivotal scene) while she tells a different but equally chilling tale from another home on the block, where an IT worker lives with his mail-order bride, Kitty.

Cobden is devastating as adult Aaron, simultaneously furious over his lost childhood and guilt-ridden over his sister’s fate. His transition from confused childhood to combative adolescence is subtle but gripping. Meanwhile, Monteith is perfectly cast as Claire. She pulls off a terrifying innocence as only she can.

The real star, though, is Moscovitch’s writing. She builds captivating memory play, descriptive monologues, and a chilling twist ending. With direction from Natasha Mytnowych and the team from its 2011 SummerWorks production, Little One is a big hit.

Niki Landau, Elisa Moolecherry, and Gray Powell in Other People’s Children. Photo by Nir Bareket.

Less successful is the second half of the double bill, Other People’s Children. It’s another unhappy look at family life, only this time it’s from the parents’ perspective. Ilana (Niki Landau) and Ben (Gray Powell) are two busy career people who happen to have a newborn, so they hire a Sri Lankan live-in nanny, Sati (Elisa Moolecherry), who immediately forms a strong bond with the baby. The rest unfolds as one expects—Sati begins to threaten Ilana’s roles as both mother and wife. At the same time, cracks widen in Ilana’s marriage with Ben amid consistent, mutual accusations of infidelity. We discover Ilana experienced postpartum depression.

While Moscovitch leads her audiences through Little One with tantalizing crumb after crumb, she’s much more heavy-handed here. Ilana and Ben describe their marital problems in detail, in front of their bathroom mirror. Meanwhile, the intrigue surrounding Sati’s current family situation (her husband’s in Japan, and her three kids are supposedly with her sister in Sri Lanka) is supposed to be Moscovitch’s signature “big reveal,” but it’s too obscure to have its intended impact. Instead, director Paul Lampert delivers a muddled Desperate Housewives-esque episode with none of the camp. And though it’s quite refreshing to see a chronological play that goes from beginning, to middle, to end, it’s clear that memory plays like Little One are still Moscovitch’s strength.