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Hannah Moscovitch’s double bill: Family matters

Joe Cobden, low-key and charming, offers a great performance as a man who manipulates through honesty. Michelle Monteith is simply chilling, as she so often is.

Nir Bareket


Little One

  • Written by Hannah Moscovitch
  • Directed by Natasha Mytnowych
  • Starring Joe Cobden and Michelle Monteith
  • Four stars

Other People's Children

  • Written by Hannah Moscovitch
  • Directed by Paul Lampert
  • Starring Niki Landau, Elisa Moolecherry and Gray Powell
  • Two stars

A little over five years ago, Hannah Moscovitch had her coming-out party when her play about a son of a Nazi sunk by shame, East of Berlin, opened at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre. Since then, she's become one of Canada's most in-demand playwrights, with a series of dark investigations into guilt in a globalized world.

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In celebration, or perhaps just recognition, of that, Tarragon is currently producing a mini-festival of Moscovitch's work. The double bill currently on stage neatly showcases her strengths as a writer of one-acts – and the areas where she could improve.

Little One, which is headed to Victoria, Yellowknife and Banff, Alta., after Toronto, follows a structure familiar to the playwright's earlier memory monologues like East of Berlin and The Russian Play. Those took place in Paraguay or Russia, however, while this one is set in Canada.

Aaron (Joe Cobden) tells his story about growing up with an emotionally disturbed younger sister, Claire (Michelle Monteith) – whom he describes, first apologetically and then defensively, as a "monster."

Both Aaron and Claire are the adopted children of a pair of well-off, do-gooding Ottawa functionaries. He lost his parents in a house fire at a young age, then his guardian to cancer; she was discovered in a boarded-up building in unclear circumstances. He appears to be well adjusted; she, less so – inappropriate sexual behaviour and acts of violence followed by group therapy are facts of life for this family.

Aaron doesn't get the stage all to himself, however. Claire, in addition to appearing in Aaron's memories, keeps popping up all around the theatre to tell a story about a Vietnamese woman who arrives in Canada as a mail-order bride – in a spooky tone that tells us it won't end happily. (Indeed, at first it seems she may be paraphrasing an earlier Moscovitch play, USSR – though the bride imported to Toronto in that play was Russian.)

Natasha Mytnowych directs Little One like it's a horror story told around a campfire – Monteith lighting herself from below with a flashlight; Cobden lit by a giant one from above.

Though at first Aaron seems to be confiding in us, it eventually becomes clear he's actually confessing. We, the audience, are his interrogator – our silence compelling him to get closer and closer to the truth. Like the best homicide detectives, Moscovitch understands that the art of eliciting a confession is sometimes simply about giving someone enough rope to hang themselves. Cobden, low-key and charming, is great as a man who manipulates through honesty; Monteith is simply chilling, as she so often is.

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Over the intermission, a fourth wall is erected for the second play on this double bill. While the domestic drama of the three characters in Other People'sChildren – a Canadian power couple and their Sri Lankan live-in nanny – plays out privately in two rooms of a large house, they nevertheless seem desperate to turn to the audience and express what's really on their minds. They never do, however, and the play feels like a stifled soap opera as a result.

Ilana (Niki Landau), a corporate lawyer, and Ben (Gray Powell), an international businessman, create an awful employment atmosphere for nanny Sati (Elisa Moolecherry) from the moment she arrives in their home. Ilana shifts from kind to cool on a dime, while Ben uses her as a confidant to wedge between himself and his wife.

While the couple's problems are over-shared in front of us – brawls over botched breastfeeding, mothers-in-law and a too-friendly massage Ben received while on a business trip to Hanoi – Sati remains a chipper cipher. Moolecherry provides hints as to her character's life back home – a husband who moved suddenly to Japan; three children who appear in a frame by the bed, but may not be in the picture. While Ben eventually seems to unravel what Sati is hiding by the end of the play, I didn't get it.

Director Paul Lampert's production involves a lot of choreographed movement suggesting the comings and goings of the couple, but it lacks clear emotional lines. Ben, in particular, is difficult to get a handle on in Powell's erratic performance; at times, physically shaking his wife or grabbing the nanny's arm, he seems borderline abusive. At one point, there seems to be a suggestion that he might also be emotionally abusing his powerful wife – but it's all left dangling.

In an attempt to avoid exposition, Other People's Children is instead mysterious and melodramatic. There's no doubt that while Moscovitch at this point has developed a strong muscle for direct address, her skills at dialogue are still in development.

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