Brutality or morality – that’s the question posed by Gleams Theatre’s double bill, Riverside Drive and My Child, now playing at Mainline Theatre. Director Constantin Sokolov has paired New Yorker Woody Allen and a 29-year-old Londoner, Mike Bartlett – two writers who couldn’t be more different. What links them is a fascination with the savagery into which people can sink.
Riverside Drive is the stronger play. Although best known for his films, Allen shines on the stage, bringing comic wit and ingenuity. In the late sixties, he wrote two Broadway hits — Don’t Drink the Water and Play it Again Sam, in which he starred alongside Diane Keaton.
Riverside Drive opens with an adulterous scriptwriter named James (Jim) Swain awaiting his lover in a secluded Manhattan park overlooking the Hudson River, purportedly to end the affair. The lover is late and a homeless man, who knows everything about Jim, from his job down to what’s written on his license plate – JIMBO-1 — filched from tennis pro Jimmy Connors. He’s been stalking Jim for months under the delusion that Jim stole his life story for a film.
Sokolov’s clever set is a dump. The back wall is covered in ripped green garbage bags and newspapers. Center-stage, an industrial-sized bin lies on its side, trash strewn around it. As the play opens, Jim, dressed in Woody-style glasses and tweed, sits typing a script about a man named Jim waiting in a park for his lover.
When Jim steps onto the stage there’s a rustle from the trash bin. Itinerant Fred Savage emerges and the fun begins. In scenes reminiscent of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, Savage becomes increasingly deranged and menacing. But even with the sharp edge of threat, Riverside is a comedy. On opening night, the audience couldn’t stop laughing because Allen’s writing is so brilliantly funny.
Strong performances by the entire cast help make this production a gem. Mimicking Allen’s twitchy mannerisms, Santino Lucia’s Jim had me in stitches. Samuel Chan’s Fred is physical and scary, alternately leaping on the trash can and stabbing at Jim with a broken umbrella. Together they’re riveting, circling each other and the stage like caged animals. As Jim’s lover, Sarah Hansen is a sexy delight.
In My Child, Sokolov uses the trashy backdrop and stark stage again, but fills it with audience members and actors sitting in two crossed lines of fold-out chairs. The staging is intriguing, with actors jumping from their seats to do things like brush their teeth, pray or simulate anal sex. An old woman rolls back and forth in a wheelchair moaning the word “love.”
Bartlett is experimental, dispensing with scene, character names and other conventions. But despite its visual complexity, the play’s plot is bare bones. A divorced man fights a woman for access to his son. While divorce has great potential for drama, Bartlett’s characters lack the depth to actuate it. The woman (Marie-Noelle Dufour) is evil personified, a screaming harpy who delights in savaging her ex (George Bekiaris), a one-note victim. The child (played by adult Michael Panich) is spoiled rotten. Again a single note. The woman’s boyfriend (Marc Poulin) is a brute. The actors do their best, but nuanced human truths are not a Bartlett forte.
This double bill deserves to be seen. Riverside Drive because it’s a comic jewel, and My Child, because it’s the Canadian premiere of a rising British star.
Woody Allen’s Riverside Drive and Mike Bartlett’s My Child continue until May 10 at Mainline Theatre, 3997 St. Lawrence Boulevard, 7p.m. & 9 p.m.. Box Office (QDF) 514 848-9696. Tickets: $25, $20 or 2-play package $35.
Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal writer. Her novel, The Heart Specialist, was published this spring.