Mustard Leaves Little to Relish
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Mustard Leaves Little to Relish

Kat Sandler’s latest black comedy finds the prolific Toronto playwright off her game.

Paulo Santalucia, left, as Jay, Rebecca Liddiard as Thai, and Anand Rajaram as her imaginary pal in a scene from Kat Sandler's Mustard at the Tarragon Extraspace  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Paulo Santalucia, left, as Jay, Rebecca Liddiard as Thai, and Anand Rajaram as her imaginary pal in a scene from Kat Sandler’s Mustard at the Tarragon Extraspace. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue)
Runs to March 13
Tickets: $28-$60
2 5stars

Most kids ditch their imaginary friends about the time they go to school and start making real ones. However, 16-year-old Thai has managed to hang on to hers—or rather, he seems reluctant to leave. His name is Mustard and he’s a cheerful, potty-mouthed goofball in a jester’s cap who still lives under her bed. And if the idea of a man—even an imaginary one—living under a teenage girl’s bed sounds a little bit creepy, you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet.

Mustard is another black comedy from the fertile mind of indie playwriting machine Kat Sandler, but it’s her first to premiere at one of Toronto’s established companies, Tarragon Theatre. And it’s a twisted little thing: Sandler mixes the most whimsical of subjects—the imaginary childhood companion—with such dark elements as violent anger, attempted suicide, and methodical torture. The result is a play of uneasy laughs and uncertain purpose that falls short of her best work for SummerWorks, the Fringe, and the Storefront Theatre.

Thai (Rebecca Liddiard) is the violently angry one. When we first meet her, she’s sporting a bloody nose from an altercation with another girl at school. Later, she’ll smash her gentle boyfriend in the face with a wine glass. Some of Thai’s rage is directed at her mother, Sadie (Sarah Dodd), who refuses to accept that her husband Bruce, Thai’s father, left them a year ago. Instead, Sadie marinates her broken heart in booze and is about to stop it for good with an overdose of pills when Mustard (Anand Rajaram) inadvertently intervenes.

Somehow, Sadie is suddenly able to see Mustard. She also discovers that he looks strikingly like Bruce. Soon, she’s gone from doubting Mustard’s existence to dating him. Meanwhile, Mustard is in big trouble for overstaying his time with Thai. The powers that govern imaginary friends have sent a couple of leather-clad enforcers to not-so-gently persuade him to leave. They are Leslie (Julian Richings) and Bug (Tony Nappo), a good-natured duo who engage in amiable banter while preparing to pry off Mustard’s fingernails or pull out his teeth. Watching their scenes is like seeing a Grimm fairy tale rewritten by Quentin Tarantino.

But, tortured or not, faithful Mustard isn’t about to abandon Thai in a time of crisis. You see, she’s been secretly shtupping an older man—a 20-year-old Jewish college student named Jay (Paulo Santalucia)—and now she thinks she might be pregnant.

It could be that Mustard represents the childhood that Thai is reluctant to relinquish, or maybe he symbolizes her family in happier times—after all, it was her dad who first conjured up the goofy character to entertain her in her cradle, which explains why Mustard bears such a strong resemblance to him. But if such is the case, Sandler never takes those ideas forward. She seems to think just the premise of a tenacious imaginary friend will be entertaining enough. And her concept of a fairyland that sends out thugs to torture him for his excessive devotion is unpleasant and not all that funny. In fact, Sandler’s writing is less inspired here than usual: Mustard, Leslie, and Bug share a lame running joke about their uncertainty over compound words (“Is forever one word or two?” etc.) that even lexicographers will find tiresome.

The shame is that Sandler has such a strong cast for this show. Her plays are usually performed by promising up-and-comers, but Tarragon has given her such seasoned pros as Dodd, Nappo, and Richings. Dodd is amusing as the pitiful Sadie, who has taken to drinking wine by the box. Richings and Nappo, meanwhile, make a great team, with Richings’ Leslie a dry Englishman in the Bill Nighy vein and Nappo’s Bug akin to one of Tony Soprano’s slower-witted associates.

Rajaram, who was a scene stealer as the Punjabi cop in Tarragon’s Bollywood version of Much Ado About Nothing last season, is suitably impish as Mustard. And there are two promising up-and-comers: in Liddiard, who brings a moody Kristen Stewart vibe to the role of Thai, and Santalucia, who nails the poetry-spouting nebbish Jay.

Director Ashlie Corcoran, who made creative use of the Tarragon Extraspace for her hit staging of The Ugly One, is hampered here by Michael Gianfrancesco’s boxy townhouse set, which makes for some cramped blocking. The designer does, however, provide a nice contrast between the dingy reality of the house and the candy-coloured world of make-believe with his motley costume for Mustard.

Although she excels at quirky ideas, Sandler at heart may be a conventional playwright, and, by those standards, this is something less than a well-made play. If anything, it feels more like the pilot for an offbeat sitcom: Stay tuned for future episodes following Sadie and Thai as they both try to cope with single motherhood, alternately helped and hindered by the well-meaning Mustard! Maybe Sandler shouldn’t have written this for Tarragon, but for CBC.