“Good Canary” is a very good film. Trouble is, it’s on stage. Directed for the third time by John Malkovich, after productions in French and Spanish, Zach Helm’s boulevard tragicomedy is a firm feminist reproach, and an urgent one at that, but its story hasn’t found the right shape. The rhythms are off, the structure’s askew — and yet its recriminations still land, its sadness still stings. In Annie, a brilliant, brittle twentysomething agonizingly played by newcomer Freya Mavor, Helm portrays a woman pinioned by the patriarchy.
Canaries were living alarm bells; their deaths, deep beneath the earth, were signs of a noxious atmosphere. Annie’s the same: a fiercely bright, outspoken young woman, reliant on amphetamines to function. The pills keep a severe eating disorder at bay and just about hold her together, but three becomes four, and four becomes a stash. (“It’s the closest I’ve come to having a corporate policy,” drones her dopey dealer.) Annie’s habit is self-destructive, but the alternative, life without speed, is doubly so.
Her husband Jack (Harry Lloyd) has just become the toast of literary New York with a critically-acclaimed debut novel. Big offers have followed, a lifeline not just for him and Annie, but for his small-time indie publisher Charlie (Steve John Shepherd) as well. However, cash comes with (unspoken) conditions: falling in with the right people at the right parties, maintaining an image of balanced togetherness and, of course, a new book. For various reasons, all that hinges on Annie.
And she, in turn, hinges on Jack. All he can do is support her — and Lloyd plays him with loving patience stretched to its limits. It’s a tight moral bind, one with no easy answers. Forcing Annie off drugs not only impedes her independence, it risks exacerbating other harmful behaviors. Annie’s addictions have deep roots in abuse. Her issues aren’t just part of her past, they’re part of her. Mavor is extraordinary: angular and jittery, lacerating and frank. She treats her toast as if she’d been asked to swallow a razorblade.
Yet Annie’s tragedy isn’t simply personal, it’s political. Her millennial angst finds structure in submission and, when high, she literally speed-cleans the flat, and Helm suggests that the feminine mystique has lost its mystique. Mouthing off at a literary critic, as drink mixes with drugs, matching him argument for argument, Annie’s dismissed as “a disgrace.” Her inebriated mishaps — recounted impersonally — are laughed off as legendary until she reclaims them, as a woman. Suddenly, they’re alarming, undignified, unladylike, out of control. A troubled, troubling and troublesome woman, Annie’s a pain in the patriarchy’s ass. However, by the time her brilliance comes out — too late to count — she’s celebrated as a tragic symbol of that very system: a victim, a warning, a canary.
Malkovich’s production is keenly attuned to the nuances of Annie’s situation, but there’s a reason Helm’s script has taken so long to reach this stage. It’s a screenplay. Though individual moments gain searing intensity onstage — one in particular scours the insides — its rhythms are peculiar. Certain sequences cry out for the camera. One domestic scene plays out in silence, its dialogue projected overhead. Another glitches on repeat. “Good Canary” needs speed-cleaning montages and split-screen phone calls. Relying on Pierre-Francois Limbosch’s projected backdrops and limp physical theater, Malkovich’s staged solutions too often feel second-rate.
However, despite the ungainly staging and the Rose Theatre’s inhospitable open stage, Malkovich’s direction of actors is first-rate. Each performance is fine-chiseled yet playful: Ilan Goodman as a lethargic dealer, always one beat behind; Simon Wilson as an egotistical critic who cares more for the art-form than for its artists, and Michael Simkins, pricking the entire publishing world, as a superficially sensitive big-shot who won’t let his Stepford-style wife (Sally Rogers) shift the sofa. The support provides the laughs, but it’s Lloyd and Mavor that do the heavy lifting and, in the process, get “Good Canary” to sing.