Toronto’s Daniel Brooks may be riding high as a director, having been awarded the inaugural Siminovich Prize for Theater with its hefty C$100,000 ($63,000) bounty, but he’s unlikely to earn similar kudos for his playwriting, if “The Good Life” is any indication.
This Tarragon Theater production is an embarrassingly self-referential examination of what a marital breakup does to the life of a theater artist. Brooks pushes the egotistical envelope further by naming his leading character after himself (Dan), and having actor Guillermo Verdecchia look as much like him as possible. There are far too many “in” references about the theater where the play is taking place and digs at the interviewing techniques of local journalists.
This dramatic navel-gazing becomes even more pretentious within the form Brooks has chosen: an imitation of Plato’s Symposium, where the entire play becomes an ersatz Socratic dialogue on the true nature of love. Characters frequently detach themselves from the action and come downstage to make lengthy speeches at microphones, directly to the audience.
It’s no wonder that coherent characterization is hardly the order of the day. Verdecchia plays Dan with a smirk when things are good and a furrowed brow when they turn difficult. When trying to explain to his estranged wife why he now “hates” their two children, he says: “They don’t belong to us, they belong to Disney.” (Can we stop blaming the Mouse for everything?)
Tasmin Kelsey, as wife Gina, turns in a different performance in each of the play’s two acts. Before being betrayed, she is the bland, standard-issue, crunchy-granola spousal unit. Afterward she turns into Mrs. Robinson, with attitude to spare and an appetite for young men.
There’s also an opposing couple who are supposed to provide ironic contrast: Their marriage seems horrific, but they somehow stay together. Tracy Wright’s Mary (a Martha in desperate need of some Albee dialogue) manages to score through sheer energy, while husband Chris (played by comic Bob Martin) gets totally lost at sea.
The sextet is completed by a patently artificial performance from Waneta Storms as Eve, the other woman, and a refreshingly sexual swagger from Luke Kirby as Gord, the younger man.
John Thompson’s set and costumes are merely drab, but Andrea Lundy has provided some intriguing lighting. Richard Feren’s soundscape drenches the whole event in tepid jazz and old New Age music.
Brooks is usually a sharp director, but he has fallen asleep at the switch with a largely noncommittal staging. In any case, “The Good Life’s” focus is so narrow and its frame of reference so inbred that it would be hard to imagine it having any kind of existence after this original production.