It’s a tough job market for young people these days, never mind for ex-soldiers. Dean (Noah Reid), the young man in Dead Metaphor, George F. Walker’s snarling satire at the Panasonic Theatre, was a crack sniper during his soldiering days in Afghanistan. But being good at picking off the Taliban isn’t an asset most employers are looking for in civilian life.
After five months out of the army, and with a pregnant wife to support, Dean’s prospects look bleak. That is until job-counsellor Oliver (Michael Healey) fixes him up with a position as an assistant to Helen (Julie Stewart), Oliver’s politician wife. A right-wing wing nut in the midst of a campaign, Helen could use the optics of a war vet on her staff. Soon, however, she and others are tapping into Dean’s lethal talents as he finds himself a hired gun in the ideological war at home.
Produced by Ken Gass’s rebooted Canadian Rep Theatre, presented by David Mirvish and boasting a dream cast directed by the playwright, Dead Metaphor is sure to please diehard George F. Walker fans. It has his signature whiplash dialogue, crazy-desperate characters and situations so unremittingly dire that they’re funny. In other words, the old dog is up to his old tricks – only this time, he’s mostly bark and very little bite.
One problem is that the play is lazily constructed. Walker makes his points early on and then has nowhere to go, so he just cranks up the craziness in Act 2 and opts for an ambiguous conclusion. The laziness extends to the characterizations. Helen is just a cartoon of a driven, soulless politico, while Oliver, a decent man pushed to extremes, is – despite Healey’s best efforts – never believable. Dean’s tough-cookie wife Jenny, ably portrayed by Haley McGee, is merely a variation on pregnant Tina in Walker’s recent Moss Park – a role McGee also played earlier this season.
There is, however, one classic Walker creation: Dean’s dad Hank, a cranky, dirty-mouthed old leftie embodied with reliable charm by the great Eric Peterson. Hank is slowly dying of a brain tumour, his memory shot to hell, but that doesn’t stop him from raging at the right-wing forces of darkness with a vividly obscene invective worthy of Hunter S. Thompson. His blistering confrontation with Stewart’s Ann Coulter-like Helen – involving some choice necrophilia imagery – is priceless.
Next to Nancy Beatty, playing Hank’s patient wife, Reid gives the most low-key performance as Dean. Fresh-faced and even-tempered, he’s both the most reasonable and the most dangerous figure here – he’s as bland as Lee Harvey Oswald.
Walker’s direction, like his writing, is quick and punchy, although on opening night the actors were still flubbing the odd line. Shawn Kerwin’s strictly functional set has one intriguing element – an upper tier that is cloaked in darkness but that, given this is a play about a sniper, you know is going to be eventually used.
Dead Metaphor isn’t entirely new – it had its premiere last year at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater – but it does have a frisson of topicality right now thanks to a provincial election where, once again, right and left are duking it out. But his comedy might be more meaningful if Walker were interested in seriously addressing conservative and liberal viewpoints. Instead he just treats them as irreconcilable opposites. Dead Metaphor is infected with a deadly cynicism that finally leaves you indifferent.