Burnt Piano

Justin Fleming's misguided play is sure to turn even a mild enthusiast of Samuel Beckett's work into a Beckett fascist. Fleming has given his central character, Karen, his own birthday -- Jan. 3, 1953 -- and used this as the jumping-off point for Karen's preoccupation with "Waiting for Godot," which, according to Fleming, premiered on that day.

Justin Fleming’s deeply misguided play is sure to turn even a mild enthusiast of Samuel Beckett’s work into a Beckett fascist. Fleming has given his central character, Karen Idlewild, his own birthday — Jan. 3, 1953 — and used this as the jumping-off point for Karen’s preoccupation with “Waiting for Godot,” which, according to Fleming, premiered on that day. Except it didn’t — it opened Jan. 5. A pedantic point, to be sure, but Fleming’s approach invites such pedantry, as well as myriad other protests against imaginative offenses committed to a great and elusive artist whose scripts and secrets deserve much more respect than this.

This Canadian premiere production of Australian writer Fleming’s play — first performed at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theater in 1999 — marks a new collaboration between the Melbourne Theater Company and Montreal’s Centaur Theater. MTC artistic director Simon Phillips directs here with considerable elegance, aided by Pat Flood’s attractive and efficient set and some high-quality acting, but to no avail: The play was a goner from the get-go.

It is set in Paris in 1989, whence Karen (Mary Harvey) has come with her pre-adolescent son Jonah (Nicholas Wheeler-Hughes in the perf reviewed), in essence, to stalk Beckett and his wife, Suzanne. Karen’s father, Pete (Francois Xavier McCarthy), has come along as well, for the apparent purpose of facilitating heavy-handed first-act exposition by asking his daughter leading questions about things that, in the world of the play, he surely would already know.

Despite writerly and directorial gestures otherwise, the form of this script is pure late-20th-century pop-psychological realism. It’s clear immediately that Karen has Issues: She is obsessed with Beckett and Godot, convinced that the play is her “star sign” and that it haunts her life.

Jonah, we discover, had an older brother, and when both boys were caught in a fire several years ago, the elder died trying to save Jonah (who hid in the piano, hence play’s title). This, to Karen, links their fate to the story Vladimir tells Estragon about the thieves who were crucified with Christ: “One was supposed to have been saved and the other … damned.”

Feeling that Beckett needs to know all of this, Karen writes him dozens of letters, to which he has not responded. She imagines meeting the playwright on a street or in a cafe, scenes that have a surface effectiveness because Frank Fontaine is a fine actor who looks very much like Beckett, and the design team has done a terrific job lighting and costuming him to play up the resemblance. What tips these and other scenes into weird creative vampirism, though, is that Fleming actually has Sam, Jonah, Pete and others speaking lines of dialogue from “Godot,” interpolated into Fleming’s own melodramatic writing. The effect is rather like trying to underscore Oprah with Mahler: total culture clash.

She and the play coming increasingly undone, Karen sends Jonah to the Becketts’ apartment with her latest missive. There the child meets Suzanne (Carolyn Heatherington), who rejects the letter and delivers a convincing monologue arguing that she and her husband are private people who deserve to be left in peace. Yes, exactly: But why is Fleming not heeding his own insight? What makes him think his implausible story of one family’s tragedy imaginatively justifies him turning the great existentialist into a child psychologist?

At play’s end, we have Sam coaching Jonah to say “It’s not my fault” over and over to help him purge his survivor guilt. This comes after Karen has stalked the mourning writer to the recently deceased Suzanne’s grave and harangued him with her life story as he mutely swigs from a bottle of Bushmills.

One wonders if Beckett’s notoriously uptight nephew and executor Edward knows of the indignities being visited on his uncle’s memory through this play. If I had his phone number, I’d call him myself. Bring on the Beckett police and shut this stinker down.

Burnt Piano

Centaur Theater, Montreal; 244 Seats; C$40 ($33) Top

  • Production: A Centaur Theater Company production of a play in two acts by Justin Fleming. Directed by Simon Phillips.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Pat Flood. Lighting, Luc Prairie. Stage manager, Wendy Rockburn. Opened, reviewed Oct. 28, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
  • Cast: Jonah - Nicholas Wheeler-Hughes/ Blake Bennett Samuel Beckett - Frank Fontaine Karen Idlewild - Mary Harvey Suzanne Beckett - Carolyn Heatherington Pete Idlewild - Francois Xavier McCarthy
  • Music By: