The prolific and talented Morris Panych might be stretching himself a bit too thin these days, if "What Lies Before Us" is any indication. His latest play premiered in Toronto one day before the author opened as the star of a revival of another of his works, "Vigil," across the country at the Vancouver Playhouse.

The prolific and talented Morris Panych might be stretching himself a bit too thin these days, if “What Lies Before Us” is any indication. His latest play premiered in Toronto one day before the author opened as the star of a revival of another of his works, “Vigil,” across the country at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Panych’s presence is doubly missed here, both as playwright and director. He normally stages his own plays, making sure they get the proper ironic tone and sleek visual edge, as well as buffing the content to a high gloss with the original cast. Even when a Panych play is less than successful, it usually coasts through to respectability on its craft, but that’s lacking here, on both the page and the stage.

Topically, the script is a departure for Panych as well, marking his first work set in the distant past. He puts us down in the Rocky Mountains in the mid-1800s, during the period when the Canadian Pacific Railroad was being built.

Two surveyors and their Chinese servant are crammed into a tent where there’s little possibility for escape. One is an idealist, one a nihilist; and as events such as an avalanche and various physical ills lay siege to them, their worldviews grow ever more distant.

The format is familiar. It’s “Waiting for Godot” moved to the Wild West. Panych has explored this duologue structure before, and more successfully, in works such as “The Dishwashers” and “Lawrence and Holloman.”

Here, the dialogue sounds anachronistic, the situation never really takes on the mythic stature Panych hopes it will and we eventually degenerate into trivial tropes: Keating (Matthew MacFadzean) scratches the crabs he got from a girl named Melinda, Ambrose (David Storch) rants against the world in his journal. The servant, Wing (Wayne Sujo), suffers in silence.

Although the script is obviously flawed, it might have seemed more appealing in a better production. Director Jim Millan, in his farewell production for the Crow’s Theater company he founded 23 years ago, can’t seem to settle on a style.

The set and staging are mundanely naturalistic, but the performances seem pitched just a notch short of Monty Python, with MacFadzean’s Keating in the running for “upper-class twit of the year” and Storch’s Ambrose the kind of morose cynic John Cleese did so well.

In fact, nothing really works in this short but seemingly interminable evening. The special effects are feeble, the acting overstated, the design (partly created by the inventive Ken MacDonald) bland and the direction flavorless.

As the play ends, the sole survivor is the servant Wing, who promptly launches into a monologue in Chinese. We don’t understand a word of what he’s saying, but in a way, that’s absolutely correct, because the rest of “What Lies Before Us” shares a similar lack of meaning.

What Lies Before Us

CanStage Berkeley Street Theater, Toronto; 200 seats; C$55 $46.50 top

Production

A CanStage presentation of a Crow's Theater production of a play in one act by Morris Panych. Directed by Jim Millan.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Ken MacDonald, Robin Fisher; lighting, Lesley Wilkinson; sound, John Gzowski; production stage manager, Tanya Greve. Opened, reviewed Jan. 18, 2007. Runs through Feb. 24. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Keating - Matthew MacFadzean Ambrose - David Storch Wing - Wayne Sujo
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