Increasing income inequality is sucking so much life out of Toronto – but not, apparently, out of the imaginative life of playwrights writing about it.
The gap between the rich and the poor can currently be measured at just about seven kilometres – that being the distance between Crow’s Theatre and Tarragon Theatre, where you’ll currently find a couple of inspired new plays about the city’s most privileged and most impoverished, respectively.
Paolo Santalucia – an accomplished actor and up-and-coming director who co-leads the rising Howland Company – is making his debut as a playwright with Prodigal, a highly entertaining dark comedy about a wealthy white family in Rosedale. The show is produced by Howland, in association with Crow’s.
Rowan Clark (Rick Roberts), Prodigal’s patriarch, is hosting a dinner on the occasion of the engagement of his son Henry (Cameron Laurie) to an online entrepreneur named Sadie (Veronica Hortiguela).
Rowan seems to have everything going for him: a supportive wife, Marilyn (Nancy Palk); an adoring assistant, Simone (Shauna Thompson); and an apparently unspoken agreement with the former to ignore what’s going on with the latter.
Oh, then there’s Rowan’s impending appointment to the highest ceremonial office in Canada.
The only thing that could spoil his Family Compact fun would be the return from exile of Edmund (Dan Mousseau), his money-squandering, pleasure-seeking, substance-abusing son.
Of course, Edmund does just that soon enough, interrupting dinner high as a kite and in flagrante delicto with another male character we’ve been waiting to meet. He immediately delights in pulling skeletons out of his father’s closet and partying with them like it is Dia de los Muertos.
“Your father has done a lot of good,” Marilyn says, interrupting one of Edmund’s tirades.
“For what? The arts?” he replies, in the most cutting tone possible.
Mousseau gives a screamingly funny, show-stopping performance as a character whose spoiled behaviour is amplified by addiction and has an ever-present undercurrent of sadness.
In my experience, even the best Canadian playwrights often falter when they try to write about the well-to-do, falling into American or British clichés. The dialogue that Santalucia has written for his upper-class characters, by contrast, is of the high quality of an HBO show.
He captures that cool Canadian kindness native to parts of the Laurentian elite that can so quickly curdle – and the eau de noblesse oblige that some of the older generation of old money in this city seem to marinate in.
The satire aimed at the young in Prodigal, meanwhile, is very on point. I cringed and cackled when Sadie crept into the kitchen and asked the caterer Pauline (Meghan Swaby): “Can I offer you a little feedback?”
But the main quality evinced in Santalucia’s writing is humanism. Even Sadie, self-made by selfies, turns out to be likeable in Hortiguela’s sweet, centred performance. There’s sympathy, too, extended to Rowan that, meta-textually, serves as a kind of rebuke to all the schadenfreude that greeted John Tory’s recent departure from city hall.
In Prodigal, the rich are not eaten – only chewed over.
As is often the case with new playwrights, structure lags slightly behind style and substance. The sermons that preface the play’s parts are unhelpfully prescriptive in theme, and while Santalucia’s first act builds beautifully to a climax, he can’t quite as convincingly write himself out of that corner in the second, more sober and serious act.
Meanwhile, at the Tarragon Theatre, Behind the Moon – a new three-hander from Anosh Irani (Bombay Black, Buffoon) – takes us into an Indian restaurant called the Mughlai Moon somewhere in Toronto.
There, Ayub (Ali Kazmi) cooks and serves all day for a boss named Qadir (Vik Sahay), who tries to inspire the employee he calls “brother” with his own hardscrabble tale about immigrating to Canada from India.
Ayub, more tellingly, refers to Qadir as “my owner” in conversation with a taxi driver named Jalal (Husein Madhavji), who comes into the restaurant after closing one night having a panic attack and demanding butter chicken.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Ayub’s situation is perhaps even more precarious than the undocumented workers who Toronto theatregoers met serving up jerk pork at a Caribbean restaurant in Kanika Ambrose’s excellent Our Place earlier this season at Theatre Passe Muraille.
There are lines in Irani’s play that make you see Toronto from a shameful new angle, as when Ayub says: “I don’t live in Canada; I live in a kitchen.” The playwright’s put together some poignant stage metaphors, too: Ayub’s constant washing of surfaces in a quixotic quest to see himself in them, and Qadir’s paranoid search of the premises for rats every time he visits.
The inaction of Ayub – and unnecessary mystery surrounding Jalal – makes the first act very pensive, however. At times, it can feel as if the whole play is a metaphor of the Beckettian variety. Indeed, the single, leafless branch of a tree shaking outside the window of Michelle Tracey’s stunning take-out restaurant gives a hint of Waiting for Godot to Richard Rose’s polished production.
Action does eventually come after intermission – and the acting is excellent enough to carry you to a couple of captivatingly cruel scenes. Sahay is the standout as Qadir – so eager to portray himself as an enlightened immigrant entrepreneur but, in fact, only paying his own exploitation forward. In the end, he seems the most tragic of the trio.
Prodigal continues at Crow’s Theatre through March 12; Behind the Moon continues at Tarragon Theatre until March 19.