The Millennial Malcontent has many things going for it: an excellent title, a truly nervy performance by Frank Cox-O’Connell as a mad YouTube star and a first-act finale in which an actor in a giant penis costume runs through the audience. But playwright Erin Shields’s first comedy for Tarragon Theatre (where she previously premiered the dark dramas If We Were Birds and Soliciting Temptation) has a major flaw that distracts throughout: It’s a new play laid over an old play – and the lines don’t match up.
The Millennial Malcontent, a comedy of millennial manners with a strong undertow of online ennui, is based on a 1697 play called The Provoked Wife by English dramatist John Vanbrugh that you’ve probably never seen – and I’m not sure has ever had a staging in Canada outside of theatre schools.
It’s not necessary to know this Restoration comedy to follow Shields’s play, but unfortunately it is necessary to know it to understand why the characters say what they say and do what they do.
That’s because, transposed to modern-day Toronto, little of it adds up on its own.
Moxy (Liz Peterson) is a young wife who has grown tired of her marriage after a single year. She’s become dismissive of and rude to her husband, Johnny (Reza Sholeh), an unpaid intern at an NGO, and is always leaving him at home alone to head out on drunken debaucheries.
Johnny has a podcasting pal named Heartfree (James Daly) who encourages him to cheat on his wife to get back at her. And there’s an obvious candidate in sight: Faith (Rong Fu), a virginal vegan who has a big crush on Johnny and is being encouraged to be a home wrecker by her pal, Teasel (Natasha Mumba), a performance scholar on her umpteenth master’s degree.
Also prominent in the plot is the vain vlogger Charm, played by Cox-O’Connell – who, after being mocked by Teasel for his fashions and his phoniness, falls for her and dons a series of ludicrous disguises in an attempt to keep her from ending up with Heartfree.
Cox-O’Connell gives a clownish performance with all the toppings. Whether he’s careering across the stage on a fully functional Vespa or we’re viewing his tears in close-up (in Howard Davis’s artful projections), he is endlessly entertaining.
The rest of the comedy in The Millennial Malcontent only intermittently hits its mark. Shields’s approach to satirizing the generation before her own involves referencing mockable ideas or objects – vinyl players, podcasts, fluid sexuality – but only rarely building actual jokes around them.
Indeed, you can cut through the contemporary jargon in the script with a buzzsaw – intersectionality, self-performance, fluid, monogamish. With ironic air quotes around the whole enterprise, however, the overly ornate dialogue can just sound like a millennial game of Mad Libs.
Parts of the play in director Peter Hinton’s attractive production are outright baffling. For instance, Charm’s Québécoise cousin Mimi (Amelia Sargisson) dresses like a Harajuku girl and is so often on all fours that I mistook her for a talking dog in her first scene. (We’ve already had two talking dogs in plays this season in Toronto – in The Wedding Party and Father Comes Home From the Wars – so forgive me.)
Of course, if you know that Mimi is based on a French servant in the original play, then Sargisson’s character might make a modicum of sense.
The same goes for the central dynamic between Moxy and Johnny, which is only comprehensible on a metatheatrical level – that is, when you understand their marriage is based on a 300-year-old one and that Shields has reversed the genders of the characters.
In the original play, Moxy is a man named Brute who, in the Restoration style, lives up to his name by beginning the play with the line: “What cloying meat is love, when matrimony’s the sauce to it.”
Moxy gets the first line here: “Marriage sucks.”
Leaving aside whether an abusive wife can be the same as an abusive husband, a Restoration-inspired character named Moxy is simply different from one named Brute and should drive a different plot. In an era of pre-nups, when the idea of “cuckolding” doesn’t resonate in the same way, this one borrowed and retouched from 1697 just doesn’t work.
Reversing the genders of the characters means The Millennial Malcontent is full of strong women and many male characters who are what we used to call “sensitive New Age guys” – though, in turning Lady Fanciful into Charm, a funny female villain has been transformed into a familiar stock character from Vanbrugh’s days: the fop.
Even if the show didn’t quite stand up, I found moments to enjoy – such as when, as Johnny, Sholeh managed to deliver the line “Check your privilege” without irony (and therefore got a laugh) or Daly’s Heartfree hit just the right satirical tone in the introduction to his podcast.
And Shields’s writing is strong in the monologues that each character gets to give. Peterson’s is particularly fascinating; an artist I know more from her work in live art than in theatre, she cuts through the show to give a voracious performance as Moxy.
In her final speech, she finds something that sounds true – something about marriage that you can tell the playwright really believes.
Too bad it was the end of this play rather than the beginning of a play less false and more of its own thing.
The Millennial Malcontent continues to April 9 (tarragontheatre.com).Report Typo/Error