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Little Pretty and the Exceptional struggles with plot; Sheets strips down

From left, Shelly Antony, Shruti Kothari, Farah Merani and Sugith Varughese star in Little Pretty and The Exceptional, a play about how even the best laid plans can be derailed by mental illness.

JOSEPH HOWARTH

Little Pretty and the Exceptional: 2.5 stars

Written by Anusree Roy

Directed by Brendan Healy

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At the Factory Theatre in Toronto

Sheets: 3 stars

Written and directed by Salvatore Antonio

At the Theatre Centre in Toronto

At first blush, Little Pretty and the Exceptional seems as if it's vying to be the next Kim's Convenience.

Anusree Roy's new play for Factory Theatre also takes place at a new Canadian family business – a sari shop being set up in Toronto's Little India. Dilpreet Singh (Sugith Varughese), who has worked hard and sacrificed much to achieve this entrepreneurial dream, is readying for a Canada Day opening that will feature free flags and samosas.

He's getting lots of help from his daughters, Jasmeet (Shruti Kothari), who dreams of being prom queen, and Simran (Farah Merani), who is anxiously waiting for her LSAT results. (They are the Little Pretty and the Exceptional of the title.)

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In the initial scenes, the familiar dynamic between a puffed up immigrant paterfamilias and his Canadian-born children plays out in a light comic style. Simran is feeling the weight of the expectations that she'll become the first lawyer in the family, while Jasmeet has raised the intolerant ire of her father by dating a Tamil Canadian (a lovably goofy Shelly Antony). "How I be racist to my own race?" Dilpreet responds, when Jasmeet calls him on it.

Instead of being the pilot for a new CBC sitcom called Singh's Saris, however, Little Pretty and the Exceptional is about how even the best-laid plans can be derailed by mental illness. Pretty early on, it becomes clear Simran is dealing with more than your typical overachiever's anxiety – and that the conspicuously missing mother is a key to the family's mental-health history.

Unfortunately, there's not much more to Little Pretty and the Exceptional in terms of plot. It mainly becomes a matter of waiting to see if Simran's father and sister will get her the help she needs before she poses a danger to herself or others.

Merani has the tough job of portraying a character cracking up in a naturalistic manner – as she moves from headaches to outbursts to visions; this is hard to watch because it's so clearly an acting challenge. Only after intermission does director Brendan Healy begin to experiment, semi-successfully, with theatrical ways of staging scenes from Simran's point of view.

As Jasmeet, who presents herself as an empty-headed fashionista but has hidden depths, Kothari gives a breakout performance. She has excellent comic timing – and convincingly navigates what is really the only substantial character arc in the play, having not yet come to terms with her mother's death more than a decade earlier. Varughese, meanwhile, is amusing as the overbearing dad embarrassing his children with his accented malapropisms, but he's at his best in his subtler, resigned moments – and brought me to tears with a monologue about his late wife.

Little Pretty and the Exceptional has some smart ideas in it about time and denial and how we refer to "crazy" people on the street versus those in our own families, but the writing is too big, the plot too linear for it to really satisfy as a meaty character study. It definitely felt as if it could have been stronger condensed into a single act.

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I don't know who to blame for the awkward set – a long countertop that dominates the stage, forcing the cast into awkward lines and inhibiting intimacy. There's no set designer listed in the program.

Closing this week at the Theatre Centre, Salvatore Antonio's Sheets has attracted attention for having a cast that takes off its clothes – and, at one special performance earlier this week, an audience that stripped down to its skin as well. But its appeal should go beyond naturists.

Antonio's play, which he's effectively directed by himself, is a series of shorts all set in the same hotel room. Some of it feels cliché or pretentious (an all-seeing maid?). But I found a scene between two excited/nervous young men (Danny Ghantous and David Reale) waiting for a female friend to arrive for a threesome to be persuasively written and exquisitely acted. It was sweet, rather than salacious – and had a good twist in the middle. In another scene, Jennifer Wigmore gives an achingly honest performance as a newly divorced businesswoman waiting for an escort.

Antonio uses the bodies he displays to tell his little stories – and, in a pornographic age, asks us to consider our physical selves in a more human, forgiving way. The more Antonio's script heads toward erotica, the less appealing I found it. Still, it's more than an Oh! Calcutta! for the indie-theatre set.

Little Pretty and the Exceptional (factorytheatre.ca) continues to April 30. Sheets (theatrecentre.org) continues to April 9.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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