Friday, May 6, 2016

The Neil Simon of Canada

This is a somewhat tangential review of Fox on the Fairway by the Village Players.  Toronto has over time developed a somewhat interesting theatre culture.  There are quite a few really professional theatres with established companies (Tarragon, Soulpepper, Canadian Stage (even though I don't like what they are offering) and arguably Factory Theatre (though it doesn't really look like it ever recovered from firing its AD back in 2012)) and a lot of storefront theatres with really hungry, young artists doing challenging work (and despite its longevity, Buddies in Bad Times probably fits in here as well).  Then there are companies that have been around for a while and are a notch above community theatre but are really a bit closer to what one would find in smaller cities.  In my mind this includes the East Side Players, Alumnae Theatre and the Village Players.  Alumnae probably takes slightly more risks and East Side Players may be slightly more professional.  After our experience watching Fox on the Fairway, I'd say the Village Players goes for really comfortable, middle-brow work.

We really did not like this play and left at the intermission.  I don't think either of us laughed once at the stale jokes (the waitress talks about kissing a patron's dimpled balls -- oh she means golf balls... ).  My wife said it was predictable, just like watching a live episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.  I realize farce is very hard to do well, but the production was only so-so and the script was lousy. 

This has almost completely dissuaded me from going to their production of Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs in the fall.  I just don't feel they will do a good job, and this will blur the very good production I saw out in Peterborough this winter.  I think there are only two critics who could write a review and make me change my mind, and one of them (Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star) retired.  The other is Lynn Slotkin, with whom I seem to agree about 75% of the time, but I generally find her reviews quite insightful with only one where I felt she had kind of missed the point or was just viewing things very differently from my take on the play.  While I definitely find the listings in Now and Mooney's very helpful and the reviews often interesting, I don't find them particularly persuasive (as the reviewers just seem a bit too green to me). 

So I probably won't ever go to another Ken Ludwig play again, since I am just not his core audience.  Norm Foster is a slightly more complicated case.  I started looking into his work, since both the Village Players and East Side Players are often producing his work.   I've sort of vaguely been aware of Norm Foster but haven't seen anything by him.  I believe his two most famous plays are Maggie's Getting Married and The Melville Boys (and Village Players was going to do The Melville Boys in the late spring 2017). Then I read up and he is one of the most produced playwrights in Canada (and perhaps also the Canadian playwright who is the most produced in the States).  I Googled some of his plays, and he sounded like Neil Simon, and later reviews made the linkage more explicit.  I don't strongly dislike Neil Simon's work, but I am generally not that interested in it, even though in some ways I often write in that same general territory myself.  (And I recognize how hard it is to write something fresh when there are only about 5 plots to work from, but Ken Ludwig was stale stale stale...)

I checked out a few of Foster's plays and honestly was not that impressed. I started off with Maggie's Getting Married, which I missed from last season.


I particularly didn't like Maggie's Getting Married, since the twist comes out of nowhere (all of a sudden the groom has a twin brother, which he then laboriously has to explain why he never mentioned this fact to his finance).  That said, I was almost certain as I was reading that there would be a twin brother involved, since I thought that was the most likely way to get out of the corner Foster had painted himself in, but there were certainly no hints to the audience, which I find unfair.

I thought the way the on-stage play within a play in Opening Night fell apart was just exhausting and bizarre.  (I suppose Foster meant this as a counter example to Noises Off or even possibly French's Jitters, since in "real life," with all the huge distractions backstage, the performance actually put on would simply not come together for an actual audience.  So points for that, but I still can't imagine enjoying watching this mess, even though it is an intentional mess.  Then the second-to-last twist is hackneyed and predictable.  It was sort of the theatre equivalent of Mean Joe Greene tossing his jersey to the kid in the Coke ad.)  
Even though I generally don't like reading plays ahead of time, this is clearly a case where I will have to read Foster's, since I don't want to waste my time and money.  I'm quite sure I will skip The Melville Boys, and actually pretty much all of his work, since I have not been impressed with these plays.  I find the twists unconvincing and people acting in unconvincing ways to me (again, maybe he is essentially writing live-action sit coms).  All that said, I may still go and see Office Hours, which will be put on by the East Side Players next season.  I'm a bit more forgiving of plays about work (since there aren't all that many of them), and the East Side Players are a lot closer to my house.  I'll still read the play first, however, and if I hate the script, then I am definitely scratching Norm Foster off my list forever, and I'll go one step further: any company that is producing a lot of his work is definitely going to be considered suspect...

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