The great vaudevillian performer and comedian W.C. Fields is believed to have coined the infamous showbiz axiom, “Never work with animals or children.” Others in the entertainment industry have adopted the rule, because of the unpredictability of toddlers and beasts on stage. But in his recent play The Best Brothers, Daniel MacIvor embraces both of these snubbed theatrical minorities—even if the dog only appears for a brief moment and the two adult characters only act like feuding minors. And surprisingly, there’s little unpredictability in it.
In The Best Brothers, on now at Tarragon Theatre, two siblings, Hamilton (MacIvor) and Kyle (John Beale) Best, are surprised by their mother’s sudden death, which occurred while she was attending a gay pride parade. Hamilton, the uptight architect older brother who’s in a struggling marriage, and Kyle, the flamboyant real-estate agent who’s dating a sex worker, come to blows as they make Bunny Best’s final arrangements. They bicker over the obituary, argue over how to respond to condolence cards, and deliver one heck of a eulogy. But the biggest hurdle they face is the fate of Bunny’s beloved pet dog Enzo, who is enthusiastically destroying Hamilton’s designer home. Ultimately, these challenges help the brothers reach an understanding.
When the play premiered at the Stratford Festival in 2012, it was an instant hit. And that’s understandable. MacIvor is a well-known talent, and this is a well-structured, crowd-pleasing comedy. Beale is a surprise standout. He balances Kyle’s vivacity with an understated tenderness. Julie Fox’s set and Itai Erdal’s lighting are stunningly precise, and Dean Gabourie’s direction adds a crucial level of sophistication to the over-the-top, Odd Couple-like bros.
But even though Hamilton and Kyle are able to make progress in overcoming their disagreements, there are some problems with this production we just can’t reconcile. MacIvor’s Hamilton is frustratingly one-note. Given his permanent pout, furrowed brow, and explosive anger, there’s little reason for Kyle’s endless patience and attempts to involve him in the planning of their mother’s funeral. Hamilton’s flatness becomes even more of a problem when he emerges as the play’s central character (Kyle, the more interesting of the two, is often a supporting player). Another perplexing aspect of The Best Brothers is the intermittent monologues, in which MacIvor and Beale speak about Bunny’s romantic history and how she finally found true love later in life. These moments are the most revealing and touching in the whole play. Unfortunately, they’re out of touch with the tone that Hamilton and Kyle establish.
In short—The Best Brothers is good, but not the best.