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Gregory Prest and Paolo Santalucia in Soulpepper's Bed and Breakfast.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Soulpepper

  • Bed and Breakfast
  • Directed by: Anne-Marie Kerr
  • Starring: Gregory Prest and Paolo Santalucia
  • Produced by: Soulpepper Theatre Company
  • At the Young Centre for Performing Arts in Toronto

rating

Just a few months ago, Gregory Prest held Soulpepper Theatre Company audiences rapt as a blustering, flatulent buffoon in David Hirson’s La Bete – a role that required the energy and comedic agility to carry nearly the entire first act on his shoulders. Now he’s back at the Young Centre with another acting tour-de-force, playing ten-odd characters in Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast, which opened in Toronto on Thursday night.

The adjectives that come to mind watching this entertaining two-hander – Prest is partnered with the impressive Paolo Santalucia, who also plays multiple roles – fall under the rom-com variety: Funny, touching and sweet. There’s a whiff of the formulaic in story and structure, too. A young gay couple inherit a house in the country, leave their Toronto condo to set up a bed and breakfast and face the predictable challenges of trying to fit into a small community. Do Brett (Prest) and Drew (Santalucia) cower in the face of adversity and retreat back to the frenzied familiarity of urban life? Of course not. They discover that appearances are not always what they seem, that people – and their histories – have more depth than meets the eye, and that everyone is capable of occasional small-mindedness. Including, it turns out, themselves.

Two things save the play from feeling mechanical or too saccharine. The first is the detail and intelligence of Crawford’s writing. The play is full of satisfying zingers that go some way in capturing the sensibilities of our time. (A memorable example: Brett defends the design aesthetic of the B&B as “post-jail Martha.”) But Crawford is most impressive in the way he sketches full characters with just a few lines and, in so doing, swiftly constructs a world that seems to have existed long before the house lights dim.

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None of this would work if it weren’t for Prest and Santalucia’s theatrical gymnastics, turning on a dime from character to character with commitment and grace. They transform into grandparents, children and sexually confused teens, relying on little more than shifts in voice and physicality – though there are tiny costume cues (designed by Ken MacKenzie) to magnify the transitions. One of production’s chief pleasures is appreciating how easily this conceit could fall apart, how clumsy and amateurish the multiple-hats effect could look, with less nimble performers. The nuts and bolts of make-believe become the language of the story – that fine line between order and chaos is where this play’s spirit thrives – and director Ann-Marie Kerr finds clarity without sacrificing the thrilling sense of an actor-driven funfair in which anything goes.

That said, the characters are not all entirely convincing. The actors play two real-estate agents who tilt towards caricature: Prest’s is a flamboyant, city-dwelling gay man; Santalucia’s is a middle-aged valley girl whose affected speech is difficult to buy. But then both actors have roles that soar with humour and pathos. Santalucia is hilarious as Brett’s bro-ey and guileless nephew Cody, who answers every question with a defensive “I don’t know.” Prest is equally good as a closeted teenage boy obsessed with baking. The actors are charming and flirtatious as a lesbian couple who live near the B&B and become Brett and Drew’s closest friends. In fact, there turns out to be a lot of gay love in this seemingly traditional community and the passion of these other romances form concentric circles around the one at its heart.

The attractive set (designed by Alexandra Lord) is split into two levels. A gabled Victorian pediment hangs over an elegant bedroom with an exposed brick wall that forms an expansive backdrop; beneath that, there’s open space that transforms into a kitchen, lawn and the local café. Beautiful effects are rendered with simple sounds and lights. This is a Bed & Breakfast that appeals to all the senses.

And yet, it’s in this feeling of nonthreatening appeal – an underlying desire to please without risking offence or even interpretive ambiguity – that the play falls short. Conflicts and tensions are wrapped up neatly, themes of otherness and prejudice are tidily resolved. It’s not surprising to learn that Crawford wrote Bed and Breakfast with regional and summer theatres as intended venues – you’ll enjoy your stay and some fine performances, then get back on the road and carry on.

Bed and Breakfast continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until September 2.

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