Plays about the venality of the cinema industry are a rare thing, David Mamet’s wickedly funny Speed-the-Plow being perhaps the most famous example. Maybe most playwrights don’t go there because of a lingering hope that they could be a studio exec’s phone call away from untold riches, so why bite the hand that might lavishly feed them?
Clearly stung by his experiences of having had several scripts killed by “development hell” in the Canadian film business, celebrated Italian-Canadian playwright Vittorio Rossi has not only bitten that hand with this his tenth play for Centaur, he’s chewed it all the way up to the elbow. The Envelope is the equivalent of a pitbull’s frenzied attack on its tormentor after years of being thoughtlessly yanked around.
It centres on grizzled Italian-Canadian playwright Michael (Ron Lea) whose latest play is about to premiere at an unnamed Old Montreal anglo theatre. He makes time to drop into a nearby Italian restaurant (sumptuously realised by designer Evita Karasek) to pay a courtesy call on Jake (David Gow), a slithery film producer who once betrayed their friendship. Jake wants to make a movie out of Michael’s play. Michael responds with icy contempt, not least because he already has an independent American producer in place.
But then Jake dangles the eponymous envelope, a euphemism for a guaranteed multi-million deal from Canada’s film funding office. There are conditions, of course, and Michael will also have to kill the Los Angeles-bound dreams of his three actors: Shawn Campbell’s enjoyably fruity English thesp, Guido Cocomello’s intense and volatile Pacino-type, and Melanie Sirois, who’s given little to do beyond look wide-eyed and bouncy but does it engagingly enough.
Enter Sarah (Leni Parker), a bean-counter from the Federal Film Fund who’s been given power of life and death over Michael’s script. There follows a lengthy bout of horse-trading during which the Canadian film industry is broken on the wheel of Michael’s (and Rossi’s) righteous disgust.
So what exactly is Rossi’s beef with those nice people in charge of Canadian film’s purse strings? Well, as articulated through his alter-ego, Michael, the whole process is an unholy mess of philistinism, bureaucratic constipation and downright corruption. Michael even raises the spectre of the Charbonneau Commission, suggesting the creativity-stifling toxicity of Canadian film production is part of a wider malaise.
Strong stuff indeed, and Rossi’s play certainly has the virtue of genuine, passionately-held indignation.
Unfortunately, that also proves to be its downfall, dramatically speaking. Despite lots of muscular dialogue enlivened by scintillating profanity, despite skilfully-placed dramatic silences and tense stand-offs, and despite a wealth of crowd-delighting one-liners revolving around the quirks of actors and Italian culture (this last enjoyably sent up by Tony Calabretta’s pugnacious restaurateur), The Envelope ultimately gets caught up in the bureaucratic snares it decries. Rossi is so determined to set out the case for the prosecution that he doesn’t seem to notice, or perhaps just not mind, that much of the dialogue amounts to one character lengthily explaining to another the minutiae of funding and filmmaking.
There’s an even bigger irony. Rossi, by directing his own play about the need to restore artistic control, has deprived himself of an outside influence who could have applied the brakes, got him back on track, and maybe whispered in his ear about cutting or re-thinking a line here and there (for instance, the one describing assaults on the playwright’s vision as rape).
The anger, indeed the obsessiveness, of The Envelope suggests Rossi really needed to get it out of his system, and it will perhaps at least ignite a debate about what’s going on with Canadian cinema. Meanwhile, having spent so much negative energy on such insider-ish material, Rossi can now hopefully get back to the universally-applicable and humane dramas that have made his name in theatre.
The Envelope plays at Centaur Theatre until April 9
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Among his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.