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From the left: Corrine Koslo, Johnathan Sousa and Nancy Palk in Withrow Park at Tarragon Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

  • Title: Withrow Park
  • Written by: Morris Panych
  • Director: Jackie Maxwell
  • Actors: Benedict Campbell, Corrine Koslo, Nancy Palk and Johnathan Sousa
  • Company: Tarragon Theatre
  • City: Toronto, Ont.
  • Year: To Dec. 10, 2023

Morris Panych’s national reputation as a playwright first soared to great heights when he wrote 7 Stories, a 1989 dark comedy about a man standing on a seventh-story ledge of an apartment building, his suicidal despair ignored by various self-absorbed people popping their heads out of the windows around him.

The perspective the Canadian dramatist offered then was, literally, from the outside looking in.

Now, close to 35 years later, with a career that has clambered on and off all of country’s biggest stages, Panych is on the inside looking out.

So, too, are the three older characters at the centre of his newest play, Withrow Park, a more subdued comedy having its world premiere at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre under the direction of former Shaw Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell.

Janet (Nancy Palk) and Arthur (Benedict Campbell), a couple undergoing a grey divorce, live in an east-end Toronto house with Janet’s sister, Marion (Corrine Koslo).

These three spend much of their time gazing out the windows of their house and toward the titular park – at children playing, women walking whippets, and squirrels being squirrelly. (“God, how I hate squirrels,” says Arthur, in one of many laugh-getting lines. “Where do they get their ambition?”)

Late one night, however, Marion – suicidal by her own definition, a recurring character in Panych’s oeuvre – spies something more unusual while park-watching.

A strange young man is approached by two other men in a car – and, as the scene is briefly illuminated by headlights, Marion makes eye contact with the mysterious loner before shutting her curtains. Was she about to witness a drug deal? An act of violence?

Simon (Johnathan Sousa) turns out to be the name of the man in question – and he, soon enough, shows up knocking on the front door of the house to introduce himself, saying he is new to the neighbourhood, though not specifying exactly where he lives.

Janet invites the seemingly unhoused fellow back for tea and then dinner – despite Arthur and Marion’s concerns that he might be a psychopath.

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From the left: Benedict Campbell, Corrine Koslo, Johnathan Sousa and Nancy Palk in a scene in Withrow Park.Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

Elements of this – the unexpected visitor, the middle-class existence threatened by downtrodden outsider – bring to mind Harold Pinter, comedy-of-menace classics like The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Homecoming (though, too, Panych’s own 2007 play, Benevolence).

There is a softer, lighter tone to Withrow Park, however. The comedy is front and centre, a mix of genuinely witty epigrams and more sitcom-style sass; the characters’ despair is discussed, but rarely felt (the exception being Janet, owing to Palk’s finding something in her betrayal to ground her portrayal); the proceedings lack any real edge but also stakes, and the plot sometimes seems to retcon its nervier twists as it goes along.

What Panych’s play does share in common with Pinter and the other more hard-core absurdists who inspire him is that he leaves a lot to the imagination about his character’s backgrounds.

The reason for Janet and Arthur’s parting of ways is fully explained: Arthur came out of the closet after his retirement from a lifetime teaching, due a love affair with a pediatrician who, at the start of the play, has already left him.

But other than that, everything else is murky – the two women’s professions, connections to anyone outside of the house, their pasts – beyond the fact that Marion went out on a date or two with Arthur before he got together with her sister decades ago.

Simon is the most mysterious of all – a walking, talking symbol who allows for the play to leave the confines of drawing-room comedy and attempt to land on a more poetic plane.

There is something about the blue living-room set with its artfully foggy windows designed by Ken MacDonald, Panych’s long-time partner in scenography, that had me flashing back to the pair’s production of Noël Coward’s drawing-room comedy Blithe Spirit at Soulpepper many years ago. And, as it turned out, the two shows are not entirely lacking in spiritual connection.

“People have a hard time believing in things that can’t possibly be true,” Simon says at one point, upon revealing who he is (or may be).

That’s the trick with theatre, too, of course – getting people to believe in it despite its obvious untruth. But even the actors – a formidable assemblage of veterans such as Koslo and dynamic up-and-comers like Sousa – seem to struggle with that here and can only play surfaces.

Despite an enjoyable succession of zesty zingers, Withrow Park’s absence of detail eventually comes to feel like an absence of depth. Unlike owning a house in east-end Toronto for 25 years, the return on investment is low – though that, of course, is a high bar.

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