In A Few Brittle Leaves, when the lights came up on the quiet, conservatively decorated home of the Pie sisters, in the small British township of UpsyDownsyshire, it didn’t take long for this unassuming setting to get a disproportionately loud response from the audience. Applause and laughter erupted when the crowd caught sight of the elderly Pie sisters themselves: Viola, a tall woman dressed in a grey-and-brown sweater and a floor-length skirt, with her mousy hair tucked away on her head; and Penny, a shorter, stouter woman in a purple dress and matching jacket, with a sleek blonde bob.
The applause might have been taken as a compliment for costume designer Sheree Tams, since the Pie sisters are played by men. Even so, they look straight out of an old Britcom, or one of Barbara Pym‘s social comedies. (The latter inspired playwright and director Sky Gilbert when he was creating the play.)
Edward Roy is tasked with the slapstick role of Penny, who is half-a-century in age but still a flirty schoolgirl at heart. Gavin Crawford of This Hour is 22 Minutes takes a more subtle turn as the reserved Viola, a poet with a mysterious marriage in her past. As is common in stories about small towns, Viola and Penny’s lives of tea, reading (books for Viola, fashion magazines for Penny), and spinsterhood are jolted by two arrivals: their young, pretty niece Nora (played in drag by Philippe Van de Maele Martin) and a young, handsome new vicar, Mr. Gupta (Zahir Gilani).
What ensues is prime material for over-the-top romantic comedy melodrama. Threatened by a younger, prettier presence in their small town, Penny overcompensates for her insecurities with foolish wooing techniques. Hilariously disastrous results ensue, and they’re made more hilarious by contrast with the dry reactions from Penny’s polar-opposite sister. Nora, a modern young woman, struggles to stay committed to her writing career amid pressure to find a mate. Meanwhile, Mr. Gupta, though he’s mostly talked about rather than spoken to, has his own inner conflicts to manage. Viola could easily have become the straight man (or, woman?), but thanks to Crawford’s seasoned comedic timing, she often delivers the one-liners that get the biggest laughs.
Luckily, Gilbert doesn’t let the story unravel into comedic chaos. The second act is underlined by each character’s battle to fulfill his or her desires, even when those desires are at odds with societal expectations. Viola and Penny’s experiences with aging couldn’t be any more disparate, but, thanks to strong performances, their confessional moments in the script are both quite moving. Crawford, in particular, is captivating, nuanced, and gentle as Viola—so much so that you’ll want to sit down with Ms. Pie for a cup of tea after the show. Newcomer Van de Maele Martin also makes an impressive Buddies in Bad Times debut.
A Few Brittle Leaves is funny and thoughtful, with some wonderful performances. It’s nothing exceptionally groundbreaking, but it’s worth seeing before it closes this Sunday.