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  • Written by David French
  • Directed by Ted Dykstra
  • Starring Kevin Bundy, Diane D'Aquila, Oliver Dennis, C. David Johnson, Abena Malika, Jordan Pettle, Noah Reid, Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson
  • At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on Wednesday

There have been plenty of backstage comedies, from the farcical ( Noises Off) to the bittersweet ( The Dresser), but David French's Jitters is, as far as I know, the only one to deal with the perils of staging a new Canadian play.

French's 1979 comedy, receiving a rousing revival from Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre, is both a general send-up of the nerve-shredding insanity behind mounting a show, and a more specific satire of Canadian theatre circa the 1970s. Ted Dykstra's production treats it affectionately as a period piece, which only highlights how much has changed in this country in the last three decades (new plays are so commonplace we don't feel the need to label them "Canadian") and what remains the same - mainly, our absurd craving for American approval.

The setting is a small Toronto theatre, where a new kitchen-sink drama, The Care and Treatment of Roses, is about to debut with more than the usual anticipation. Its leading lady, Jessica (Diane D'Aquila), is an ex-pat Canadian who has made it big in New York and London, and the hopes are that her star power will catapult the play to Broadway.

In the first act, French sets up a duel of egos between Jessica and her prickly co-star Patrick (C. David Johnson), a seasoned Irish-Canadian actor who has spent his whole career north of the border and hides his sense of inadequacy behind a high-minded refusal to sell out to "the bitch goddess" success. These two species of Canadian actor are as prevalent now as they were then. When Patrick made a passing crack about Christopher Plummer, currently lending star power to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the line got an especially loud laugh.

Jitters itself was a U.S. success in its day and that's because, Canadian concerns aside, it's a universal theatre spoof. The warring Patrick and Jessica are also instantly recognizable stage types - the boozing, wenching macho actor, the brittle diva - as are the other characters here. They include Robert (Mike Ross), the anal playwright who'll quibble over a syllable; Nick (Jordan Pettle), the little Hitler of a stage manager; and George (Kevin Bundy), the harried director who does triple duty as coach and babysitter to his insecure and unreliable cast.

French also exploits all the well-known theatrical catastrophes in his second act, which unfolds backstage on the night of the premiere. We have the green young actor (Noah Reid) who shows up drunk, the stage-shy playwright frantically pressed into service as his substitute, not to mention a malfunctioning door that leaves another actor trapped in the bathroom just as the curtain is about to rise.

That hapless actor, Phil (Oliver Dennis), is French's funniest creation here. A whiny, fussy, mama's boy hypochondriac, he obsesses over minute details in his wardrobe, but can't remember his simplest lines. Dennis gives a deliciously deadpan performance.

If French's other characters aren't quite as idiosyncratically original, they are still substantial stereotypes and the Soulpepper actors play them with zest. As Jessica, D'Aquila is by turns formidable and fragile but, finally, a trouper of the first order. Johnson is bitter yet charming as Patrick and amusingly ludicrous as his gruff character in the play-within-the-play, a European working-class boor who looks like one of the Trailer Park Boys. Pettle is hilarious as the fanatical stage manager - imagine a prissy Charles Manson. Sarah Wilson quietly goes from naive to knowing as the pretty assistant who becomes Patrick's latest sexual conquest. And Abena Malika's front-of-house manager radiates calm efficiency in the eye of the storm.

French saves the third act, the day after the opening, for his sharp (and well-deserved) digs at the theatre critics. Someone complains that the reviews never mention the set and costumes, so let's rectify that now by praising Patrick Clark's amusing resurrection of ugly seventies fashion and decor. The graffiti on his backstage walls, meanwhile, is a shout-out to some of Canada's stage greats - among them, Charmion King, who originated the role of Jessica.

It would be nice if this revival was just an exercise in nostalgia, but French is a critic, too, and some of his observations about theatre and Canadian culture still sting. One remark of Patrick's got to me. Where but in Canada, he asks, "can you be a top-notch actor all your life and still die broke and anonymous?" I only wish I could say that no longer had any relevance today.

Jitters runs until July 24.