Review: ‘Generous’

Playwright Michael Healey hit it big in 1999 with "The Drawer Boy," since staged in hundreds of productions around the world. But he's failed to strike gold a second time, penning three plays that received mixed reviews and virtually no subsequent mountings. His latest effort, "Generous," is more than likely to continue that pattern.

Playwright Michael Healey hit it big in 1999 with “The Drawer Boy,” since staged in hundreds of productions around the world. But he’s failed to strike gold a second time, penning three plays (“Plan B,” “Rune Arlidge” and “The Innocent Eye Test”) that received mixed reviews and virtually no subsequent mountings. His latest effort, “Generous,” is more than likely to continue that pattern.

On paper, “Generous” sounds like a fascinating idea, the kind of thing Alan Ayckbourn might have come up with in one of his more serious moments. Healey is interested in exploring the issue of good deeds in a wicked world, and he creates an intriguing structure to present his thesis.

The first act consists of four separate scenes, spanning 15 years. In the second act, set in the present, Healey cross-pollinates the characters from one scene to another, allowing us to see the result of their “generous” acts.

It’s a promising concept, but it’s laid low by several flaws. To begin with, Healey mixes styles wildly in the first act, beginning with a fast-paced slapstick sequence as a minority Canadian government scrambles to hold together just before a vote of no-confidence. The act ends with a wordless pas de deux in which two mismatched lovers bash each other while a KFC delivery boy looks on. But in between are a pair of low-key, naturalistic two-character scenes, each pairing a woman in need with a man she thinks can help her.

In the first, Yanna McIntosh is superbly brittle as Julia, a successful black exec who juggles lovers, children, husbands and political bigwigs while being interviewed by a drab and earnest reporter (nice work from Tom Barnett). In the second, Fiona Reid submerges her usual sunny personality to deliver a convincing portrait of a depressed middle-aged judge who has just tumbled into the sack with her preternaturally perky law clerk (Jordan Pettle, full of charm).

Each of these scenes predictably builds to a piece of dark news in the female characters’ lives and then limps on to the end.

Had Healey found some way to integrate all of these people and styles in act two, it could have made for an electric evening. But he keeps fumbling the ball, giving us more naturalistic scenes in which a character from one scenario overlaps into another and expecting us to find great resonance in it.

Once again, there’s a revelation buried in each encounter like a toy in a Cracker Jack box, but it never really adds up. And one has to wonder why Healey began the whole night with such bold theatricality, never to return to it again.

The actors are generally good, although Michelle Monteith and Ari Cohen have less effective roles than the other four cast members.

Daryl Cloran’s direction doesn’t help matters. He gets things off to a fine and funny start, but when the scenes bog down, so does he. And he’s allowed designer Yannik Larivee to come up with a cumbersome and unattractive set, involving huge clunky pieces that have to be manipulated by the cast during lengthy scene changes.

There’s some good writing here, as when Healey has one would-be politico confess, “I can handle the public, I guess it’s people I have trouble with,” but there are also some facile gags. (“What kind of person goes into politics? The kind who couldn’t pass the real estate exam.”)

The Canadian milieu of the political scenes and the fact that “Generous” never quite lives up to its high ambitions means this is one more Healey play unlikely to cross the border successfully. Even in his native land, the playwright may struggle to find future productions for this well-intentioned but fundamentally sloppy script.

Generous

Tarragon Theater; 220 seats; C$38 ($34) top

Production

TORONTO A Tarragon Theater production of a play in two acts by Michael Healey. Directed by Daryl Cloran.

Creative

Set and costumes, Yannik Larivee; lighting, Michael Walton; sound, Lyon Smith; choreography, Kate Alton. Opened, reviewed Sept. 26, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Eric Poole, Lily - Michelle Monteith Tommy Langavoolin, Julia, Scotty Nguyen - Yanna McIntosh Peter Tucker, Richard - Ari Cohen Len Bancaster, David Paul - Tom Barnett Marc Brancois, Maria - Fiona Reid Cathy Freeman, Alex Fleming - Jordan Pettle
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