Daniel MacIvor’s New Play Skewers Toronto the Bad
The playwright's Cake and Dirt is a funny but unfocused satire of the city’s elite, while Sky Gilbert’s latest, My Dinner With Casey Donovan, remembers a 1970s porn icon.
Cake and Dirt
Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue)
Runs to April 15
$50-$55 ($15 rush tickets)
My Dinner With Casey Donovan
Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
Runs to March 22
$20-$24 (Sunday pay-what-you-can)
Daniel MacIvor and Sky Gilbert, two major figures in contemporary Canadian theatre, have new plays on the boards this month. MacIvor’s Cake and Dirt, premiering on the mainstage at Tarragon Theatre, is a zeitgeist-y black comedy set among Toronto’s privileged and (mostly) white elite. Gilbert’s My Dinner With Casey Donovan, tucked into Theatre Passe Muraille‘s tiny Backspace, catapults us back to the 1970s for a history lesson in sexual repression. Neither play represents the playwright at his best, but both provide their actors with opportunities for entertaining comic performances.
With Cake and Dirt, a mischievous MacIvor dares to present us with a Torontonian’s worst nightmare: a character who turns out to be a cross between Jian Ghomeshi and Rob Ford. The other people inhabiting his unfocused satire aren’t quite as vile, but they aren’t the sort you’d want to party with, either. A party, indeed, is the pivot point of the play—a 50th birthday bash for lawyer Jeff (David Storch), held by his ex-wife Bryn (Maggie Huculak) at her luxury condo. The party-goers include Jeff’s current—and younger—wife Naline (Laara Sadiq) and his 25-year-old daughter Riley (Bethany Jillard), a recovering drug addict who still lives with Bryn. On hand to dish up acerbic asides and the occasional Greek proverb is Nina (Maria Vacratsis), Riley’s ex-nanny and now Bryn’s live-in maid.
Jeff’s bête noire is the redevelopment of a neighbourhood park from a green space to a multi-purpose concrete horror. When spineless city councillor Jason (Patrick Kwok-Choon)—who voted in favour of the project—shows up at the party unexpectedly, an ugly confrontation with the spectacularly drunken Jeff seems inevitable.
MacIvor cleverly structures the action so that the early scenes take place on the Saturday afternoon following the party, in which we witness the somewhat puzzling fallout of the previous night’s events. Things only become clear at the climax, when the play rewinds to Friday evening and we finally see the party’s chaotic conclusion in the condo’s kitchen. The playwright also employs one of his old tricks—letting us eventually discover that one of his characters is, in fact, dead—and shows off his mystery-writing skills. There are cunning bits of stage business involving cellphones and Tupperware cake containers that become significant when the plot makes a late detour into thriller territory.
In MacIvor’s finest plays, this sort of technical bravado is used to tell tales that are funny, moving, and insightful. Here, however, the mechanics—carefully staged by director Amiel Gladstone—are more intriguing than the story itself. MacIvor may intend his wealthy characters to be shallow, but he’s left them two-dimensional as well. They don’t make you think of any real people you know. Instead, Huculak’s brittle Bryn and Vacratsis’s sassy Nina could have been lifted from some old Norman Lear sitcom. Sadiq’s Naline is more au courant—she’s sort of a South Asian variation on Sofía Vergara’s trophy wife in Modern Family. Kwok-Choon, whose Jason is tellingly nicknamed Councillor Flip-Flop, is burdened with an unconvincingly written Jekyll-and-Hyde routine. Jillard is a smart and appealing Riley, but we never get the sense of a troubled young woman who has been continually in and out of rehab.
That leaves Storch as Jeff, who is the life of his own party and the saving grace of the play. The actor, who played another middle-aged lost soul in MacIvor’s Arigato, Tokyo two seasons ago, has far more fun this time out. Prickly and evasive when sober, he becomes loud, foolish, and effusive after knocking back one too many flutes of champagne. His eulogy for the doomed park, at once maudlin, silly, and heartfelt, is like a child’s bedtime story told by a wino. Since we’re going with the television comparisons, Storch gives what is probably the most amusing and embarrassing picture of midlife floundering since Don McKellar in Sensitive Skin.
Where MacIvor writes about booze-soaked birthday parties, Sky Gilbert finds laughs—and a dollop of pathos—in an excruciatingly awkward dinner. My Dinner With Casey Donovan is set in the early 1970s and was inspired by a real-life encounter between the titular porn star and one of his fans. Donovan (1943-1987) was a gay movie legend who starred in the 1971 X-rated milestone Boys in the Sand and later attempted to cross over to a legitimate acting career. Gilbert’s comedy catches him at that transition point, although most of the play throws its focus on the fan, a nerdy closet case named Calvin Limehouse (Michael De Rose). Calvin, a 25-year-old clothes buyer who still lives with his Lutheran parents in suburban Connecticut, has met Donovan, a part-time model, at a fashion show. When we first see him, he’s nervously waiting for Donovan, who has accepted his spontaneous invitation to have dinner at his parents’ house.
The early scenes are very funny as De Rose’s Calvin, a pudgy, sweaty ball of nerves, confronts the tall, cool, super-nice Donovan (Nathaniel Bacon). To keep with the era, it’s a bit like the movie-theatre scene between Bob Balaban and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, only played for laughs. (And like that scene, a blow job is later involved.) Calvin reluctantly introduces Donovan to his folks, and then goes into sulking mode at the dinner table as his prim mother (Elley-Ray) monopolizes the actor’s attention. Donovan and Mrs. Limehouse turn out to be mutual Maria Callas fans, while Donovan’s knowledge of fine wines impresses amateur oenophile Mr. Limehouse (Ralph Small).
Gilbert, directing his own script, has fun with the parents’ naiveté. A curious Mr. Limehouse asks Donovan uncomfortable questions about bisexuals in the arts, while the more tactful Mrs. Limehouse takes their guest aside to express her hope that he’ll befriend her lonely son. Their benign ignorance stands in contrast to the societal homophobia that keeps Calvin in the closet and could derail Donovan’s plans to become a serious actor.
When he isn’t trying to be provocative, Gilbert writes great roles for actors. Think of Gavin Crawford’s aging poetess in A Few Brittle Leaves a couple of years back. Here, he’s crafted a perfect part for the boyish, hunky Bacon. Belying the standard Boogie Nights image of cheerfully empty-headed porn stars, his Donovan is a young man of refined tastes and artistic aspirations struggling to put his past behind him.
A delightful Elley-Ray (the actress sometimes known as Ellen-Ray Hennessy) is sweetly indomitable as Calvin’s mother, holding sway over her son and Small’s blustering but harmless dad. Calvin, however, remains little more than a cartoon, and an increasingly whiny De Rose ends up losing our sympathy and interest. Calvin is continually excusing his flabby body by claiming he suffers from “constitutional laxity,” and it would seem the character’s lack of development also represents a laxity on the part of his creator.