From afar, Montreal can often seem like a society on the verge of either falling apart or tearing itself into two. Of late, there's been the stream of revelations surrounding municipal corruption and the debate over the Parti Québécois's proposed charter of values – punctuated by good ol' fashioned skirmishes over language politics.
Whenever you're actually in the city, however, it can be hard to find the divisions that make the headlines.
Certainly at a Sunday matinee of The St. Leonard Chronicles at the English-language Centaur Theatre in Old Montreal, there's every stripe of local – linguistically, as well as ethnically – packing the house. And they're all laughing ensemble at a play about a young Italian-Canadian couple whose Sunday family dinner turns into a disaster when they tell their parents they're selling the house and moving away from the old neighbourhood to a suburb on the West Island.
"What I love in my audiences is that I feel that there is what we call in Quebec the new nation, la nouvelle nation," says Steve Galluccio, the comedy's trilingual playwright who is busy translating his latest for a French run at a yet-to-be-named theatre company next season. "You don't feel the acrimony – it's not here, it's sort of made up by the media."
Nevertheless, it's clear from the roaring of the crowd that Montrealers wanted a laugh right now. Indeed, The St. Leonard Chronicles was extended before it even opened in September – and sold out its initial run in Centaur's 440-seat main theatre by its first weekend. (It now runs to Dec. 1.)
Galluccio's name is all it took to get box-office phones ringing – which makes him almost an anomaly among North American playwrights today. His previous comedies Mambo Italiano (which was translated into French by Michel Tremblay and was also made into a movie) and the lower-profile In Piazza San Domenico obviously left local audiences happy.
The St. Leonard Chronicles is definitely full of crowd-pleasing, hyperlocal jokes – mostly about Montreal's Italian communities, which encompass Galluccio's biggest fans. There are gags about awful homemade wine, family vacations to Wildwood on the Jersey Shore, and rivalries between neighbourhoods such as Little Italy and Ville Émard (which here gets insulted via a French scatological pun as "Ville à Marde").
It's not rave reviews that are bringing in the crowds, anyway. There's an over-the-top nature to Galluccio's characters – not so much operatic, as soap operatic – and a TV-sitcom quality to his dialogue that has never won over critics. The Centaur productions of his plays – this is the third I've seen – also always leave something to be desired in terms of acting and direction. (Though Christina Broccolini, who plays the young suburb-craving Terry, is a star.)
But Galluccio's not writing for critics – indeed, the 53-year-old, who also works as a screenwriter and writer for sitcoms in both French and English, paints himself as free from pretension and politics that plague other playwrights. "I find myself going to the theatre and I watch plays that I don't really understand," he says. "There's some important message in it – sometimes I feel like I'm being talked down to. My characters are very simple, they're everyday people."
If you dig beneath its surface, however, Galluccio's latest play is hardly that disconnected from theatrical trends. It may have a sentimental ending to balance out the profane put-downs, but The St. Leonard Chronicles is only the latest in a long line of shows where secrets come out as the alcohol goes in – that's a tradition from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Tracy Letts's August: Osage County.
The St. Leonard Chronicles also grapples with what has been the major theme of this country's drama since its birth – how first-generation Canadian values clash with those of their children (and, in this case, grandchildren). The tension between assimilation and cultural preservation has been the subject of comedy-inflected dramas from David French's Leaving Home (1972) to Ins Choi's more recent hit Kim's Convenience (2011).
Galluccio's comedy begins with Dora, the foul-mouthed grandmother played by Jocelyne Zucco, telling a story about the racist taunts she endured from both English and French speakers while she tried to drag a trunk up one of Montreal's famous outdoor staircases upon immigrating to the city after the Second World War.
The next generation knows its way around icy stairs, but has its own problems of perception to deal with. "Now they think we're all in the Mafia," says Dora's son-in-law Dante – played by another Italian-Montrealer playwright, Vittorio Rossi – a line that resonates in light of the news constantly pouring out of the Charbonneau Commission.
As for the third generation, Terry and Robert are more preoccupied with another national obsession – real estate – and just want to blend in out in the 'burbs.
The debate that ensues over the couple's proposed move at a private dinner table is really a variant on the one that's going on publicly over the proposed charter of values. Perhaps the funniest scene in The St. Leonard Chronicles comes when Terry's father Carmine (Michel Perron) asks her whether the newest wave of immigrants into St. Leonard is what's behind what is, to him, otherwise an inexplicable move. "Are you running away from the Arabs?" he asks. When Terry accuses her father of being racist, Robert's mother Elisa (Ellen David) chimes in: "You're the ones running away from the Arabs, not us!"
The St. Leonard Chronicles may be a comedy, but it's not in any way escapist. Indeed, it's hard to think of a play on a Canadian stage right now that's more au courant.