When Elliott Hayes, the Stratford Festival’s literary manager, was killed by a drunken driver on his way home from work nearly two years ago, he was just beginning to enjoy the success of his first produced play, a comedy called “Homeward Bound” that had received enthusiastic reviews and several productions on both sides of the border. The work showed promise of even greater things to come in Hayes’ understanding of dramatic structure, his ease of dialogue, dry and irreverent sense of humor and keen perception of the ironies of middle-class American life: a Canadian Neil Simon with extra bite.
In his second script, “Hard Hearts,” Hayes experimented with the very ingredients that had made him such a success the first time out. Somewhere amid the sitcom, murder mystery, romantic comedy and plain, all-out farce in “Hard Hearts,” there’s a sense of the playwright trying to get out from under his own creation in order to do and say more in a script that is clearly in danger of being facile.
It’s not an easy task given the absurd plotline: Recently divorced David (Lorne Kennedy) picks up a stranger (Michael McMurtry) in a local bar for conversation. The stranger, understandably, thinks he has been picked up for other reasons. Exit stranger and enter eccentric former mother-in-law (Jennifer Phipps) with some really weird news about her husband. Enter also David’s ex-wife (Goldie Semple) and her new boyfriend, an uptight police officer called Dick (Kent Staines.)
Between the first scene and the intermission, factor in also three deaths. And after intermission, add endless (and sometimes hilarious) jokes based on the police officer’s name.
Directed by Marti Maraden, the production struggles to find balance. It never does; “Hard Hearts” is ultimately most comfortable as farce, a fact borne out by Phipps’ performance. Her mastery of the genre through long years as one of the Shaw Festival’s leading actors nearly steals the show, and shows up Hayes’ writing at its comic best.
When things slow down occasionally to actual conversation and serious dramatic interaction, a split occurs between the pace, which suffers, and character insight, which is beautifully articulated by Hayes’ acute observations. In fact, it is the love and understanding Hayes brings to the flawed, terribly human characters he creates that point to the tightrope he’s trying to walk. When they come, the sharp-edged, painful truths stand out, tantalizing indications of what Hayes had to say that never made it into this play.
Unfortunately, also, these keen-eyed moments are merely an adjunct to the real (murderous) business of the play, and try though Hayes might to shift things elsewhere, there is little here beyond some good, old-fashioned fun — although penned by an author who seems to feel guilty over providing that and no more.
Droll performances and a straightforward directing approach on the utilitarian set, at Canadian Stage Company’s intimate second space, make for a polished and occasionally irresistible production — which in the final analysis is more than can be said for the text itself.