Woody Harrelson’s decision to make his Canadian directing debut with Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play is mainly responsible for the pre-opening buzz surrounding this show in Toronto, but the end result proves solid enough to make the show more than just a celebrity success.
The driving force behind the production is actor Marcello Cabezas, best known for his work on TV series like “Tracker” and “Blue Murder.” His company, MacIdeas, brought together nine of Toronto’s young independent producers (average age 28) to help bring his vision to the stage.
Unlike other versions that featured a star-driven cast, Cabezas turned to Harrelson as director for his box office insurance. The Emmy-winning (“Cheers”) and Oscar-nominated (“The People vs. Larry Flynt”) star made himself widely available to the press, helping the show garner considerable advance publicity.
Joining Cabezas are Toronto actors with substantial film and TV credits but not much stage experience. Marya Delver is best known for such Canadian movies as “Better Than Chocolate,” while Fabrizio Filippo has a higher profile from roles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Queer as Folk.”
Lonergan’s play deals with a trio of privileged kids, ages 19 to 21, living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1982. What starts out as a caper comedy about a stolen $15,000 and plans for a hot night of sex and drugs turns into a deeply disturbing look at the moral emptiness of a generation.
Harrelson obviously feels an affinity for the material and has succeeded in communicating his own hyper-intense performing style to the male members of the company, who literally tore the set apart on opening night.
A rehearsal accident that left Filippo with a broken foot was worked into the show, with Lonergan responding to Harrelson’s request for script changes by working in a few lines at the beginning to explain the character’s injury.
None of that impedes Filippo, who gives a breakout performance as the handsome, arrogant, near-psychotic Dennis. Filippo previously had carved out a career playing sensitive young men. His work here marks a major change and slates him as someone to watch in the future.
Cabezas does a fine job with the less showy part of nerdy, needy Warren. He runs the risk of being unlikable for most of the first act, but earns our sympathy and admiration by the end of the play. His chemistry with Filippo is excellent, and the scenes between the two of them crackle with electricity.
Delver is less successful in the admittedly different part of the princess-without-portfolio, Jessica. Lonergan has saddled her with too many speeches obviously meant to contain the play’s theme, and she delivers them without the necessary spin.
She does succeed, however, in raising the sexual temperature when necessary, and her makeout scene with Cabezas is convincingly hot.
Harrelson’s staging is generally admirable, but higher on energy than on finesse. You come away impressed by the “big” moments each character is allowed, but the connecting material sometimes is allowed to drift a bit aimlessly.
Production values are workmanlike, although, as mentioned, the intense physicality of the cast caused some problems on opening night as various pieces of the set became disengaged.