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Actors Partrick Costello (L) as Carl and Chip Chuipka as Gord in Morris Panych's new play, Gordon.

The Globe and Mail

3 out of 4 stars

There's no shortage of explosive, overblown family melodramas in the theatre, but Morris Panych has managed to breathe some life into the form with his latest - the bitter but often bitingly funny Gordon. As the show opens, designer Ken MacDonald's perfectly evocative set (a filthy, dilapidated house) gives us an indication of what's to come: This will not be pretty.

Two seemingly hapless petty crooks, Gordon (Graham Cuthbertson) and Carl (Patrick Costello), break in through a smashed kitchen window. They are soon followed by Gordon's girlfriend Deirdre (Annie Murphy). A crime has been committed, but not very successfully. Their retreat is soon interrupted when the homeowner (Chip Chuipka) returns.

What appears to be a break and enter soon escalates, as we learn that the drunken old man who has just returned is in fact "Old Gord," father to Gordon the crook. Like some sort of dysfunctional Christmas reunion, competing visions of family life emerge: Old Gord wants everything to be swell; Young Gord dredges up horrific childhood traumas that indicate that Old Gord is living in a drunken dream world.

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On full display is Panych's knack for crisp, smart dialogue. Young Gord: "Dad, I always thought you were a loner." Old Gord: "I was, until everybody left."

Cuthbertson immediately sets the tone for his character, an amoral, self-centred bully who will gladly resort to violence. Costello delivers an extremely clever and poignant turn as the rather simple Carl, a lower-functioning but decidedly moral person, made all too aware of his sidekick status by Gordon's constant degradation. But it is Chuipka who commands the stage as the epic drunk, a man fully aware of his own failed life, an avowed follower of the religion of alcoholism, in a performance that is literally staggering.

Panych usually directs his own work. But this time, though, the upstart Montreal theatre company SideMartconvinced him they should mount the original production (something of a coup). Director Andrew Shaver has gained notoriety for several innovative productions, including the staging of American Buffalo in an alley. His direction here is confident, though at times the performances seemed a bit disconnected; Murphy, playing a young woman in a terrible dilemma, seemed strangely calm as she faced several violent and even life-threatening situations.

Panych has said the story was inspired by a bit of family lore his mother used to tell him about. And given the current recession, a story about desperate down-and-outs stranded in an economic apocalypse seems especially timely - though it also leaves Panych open to the charge that this is more bourgeois gazing into white-trash tragedy. The play is, essentially, the love child of Sam Shepard and Jerry Springer.

Gordon makes for nagging suspense, punctuated by good moments of wit. But Panych's conclusions about family legacies are perhaps a bit too obvious. Indeed, they approach that of The Bad Seed: Young Gordon is drowning in a bad gene pool, and is so egocentric he's willing to take everyone else down with him.

Still, SideMart has been gaining kudos for its risky productions and its part in the revitalization of Montreal's Anglo theatre milieu - and this production is an indication they have earned their cachet.

Gordon

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  • Written by Morris Panych
  • Directed by Andrew Shaver
  • SideMart Theatrical Grocery
  • At the Segal Centre in Montreal


Gordon continues at the Segal Centre until Oct. 16. For more information, visit www.segalcentre.org .

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