When Encyclopedia Britannica announced last month that it would no longer publish a print version, those of us who'd spent our formative years poring over its heavy volumes felt a twinge of sadness. So it's a pleasure to re-encounter The Exquisite Hour, Edmonton playwright Stewart Lemoine's sweet ode to those bygone days when the world's knowledge seemed to be contained in a set of fat, alphabetized tomes and peddled by a genial door-to-door salesman.
Or in this case, saleswoman. As played by Daniela Vlaskalic in this sparkling Toronto premiere of Lemoine's little rom-com gem, she's a lady in white gloves and floral-print dress who enters looking as cool and poised as Mad Men's Betty Draper. Indeed, the year is 1962, the season is summer and Vlaskalic's Mrs. Darimont has boldly penetrated the pleasant backyard of pleasant bachelor Zachary Teale (Ted Dykstra), late in the afternoon, to politely ask him for an hour of his time.
Zach, after ascertaining that she isn't a religious fanatic, is bemused but happy to devote 60 minutes to this intriguing stranger. Even when he cottons on to the fact she's selling encyclopedias, he remains hooked.
And boy, does she know how to sell. Her artful left-field pitch prompts Zach, a dullish department store supervisor, into considering the purpose of knowledge and pondering the nature of time. He also finds himself revealing to her the insecurities that have kept him single. Before long, she has the shy fellow eagerly play-acting scenarios with her in which he uses esoteric facts gleaned from her encyclopedia as conversational ice-breakers.
If Zach's life quickly becomes an open book, Mrs. Darimont remains a tantalizing enigma right up to the last minutes of the play's hour – the action unfolds in real time.
The Exquisite Hour premiered a decade ago at the Edmonton Fringe festival and I first saw it in 2006 at Calgary's Lunchbox Theatre, in a production directed by the playwright. That show was gently beguiling, with a gorgeous period-perfect design. This version, mounted by The Theatre Department in Factory Theatre's studio space, is spartan in contrast, but with big, bright performances that emphasize the play's comedy.
Dykstra, who was the soul of dramatic intensity last summer in another one-hour play, The Kreutzer Sonata, unleashes his goofy side here. Resembling a beefier Don Knotts, his chinos hitched up past his waist, his Zach treads that blurry border between nerdiness and the look of a Sixties-era ordinary Joe. He's delightful in the play-acting scenes, throwing himself into a daffy re-enactment of the conversion of St. Hubert. (Mrs. Darimont has given him volume H of the encyclopedia to work with.) But he also touchingly conveys Zach's distress as he realizes his first hour of true bliss is almost up.
You feel for him – Vlaskalic's silver-tongued saleslady is captivating. She's also hilarious. She may begin with that Betty Draper air, but the white gloves quickly come off and the physical comedy kicks in. Her wild contortions in a scene where she pretends to be a hysterical dental patient are just that – hysterical.
The actress, an Edmonton expat, knows her Lemoine, having worked in the past with his company, Teatro La Quindicina. Same goes for director Ron Pederson, who is one of Teatro's artistic associates. He gives the play an impeccable staging on a minimal backyard set by Marzena Cegys, in which a flower-bordered picket fence and a pitcher of lemonade quick-sketch the idyll of a suburban summer.
Although Lemoine is legendary in his home town, where he has been writing plays since the dawn of the Edmonton Fringe in 1982, his work has been seen only sporadically in Toronto. That's a shame. The Exquisite Hour is a perfect example of his charming retro sensibilities and his gift for witty dialogue in the Noel Coward vein. He's as old school as a set of encyclopedias, and that's something to cherish.
The Exquisite Hour
- Starring Ted Dykstra and Daniela Vlaskalic
- Written by Stewart Lemoine
- Directed by Ron Pederson
- A Theatre Department production
- At Factory Studio Theatre in Toronto
The Exquisite Hour runs until April 29.