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For a Good Time, Call Kathy Blanchard, comedy about two cousins and their complicated love lives, features Geoffrey Pounsett, left, and Daniel Pagett.

Next Stage Theatre Festival

At Factory Theatre in Toronto

Every January, Toronto theatre comes back to life after the holidays with the Next Stage Theatre Festival – a 10-show winter spin-off of the Fringe Festival.

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I don't think it's just the current cold snap that has me yearning for the free-for-all of the summer version this year, however. This edition of Next Stage is packed with safe and sensitive and, frankly, dull plays missing the Fringe's sense of fun and mischief. Well, except for one audacious and unwieldy riot grrl musical about a woman-hating serial killer, that is.

Piece by Piece is a new drama by Alison Lawrence – playwright of Fringe comedy The Catering Queen and one of the three women behind the hit break-up play Bittergirl, which was turned into an advice book and will premiere as a musical at the Charlottetown Festival this summer.

Bittergirl, co-written with Annabel Fitzsimmons and Mary Francis Moore, concerned three women just out of relationships of varying seriousness. Piece by Piece, a solo effort by Lawrence, again focuses on three women, but each is contending with grief – and men who aren't helping them deal with it.

Teenager Steffie (the engaging Virgilia Griffith) has lost her mother to cancer and her father has responded by sinking into an alcoholic stupor; middle-aged Jessie (Mary Francis Moore) has had multiple miscarriages and her husband believes she's taking too much time getting over them; and elderly Barb (Linda Goranson) has lost her husband to dementia – his mind, anyway – but still has to deal with his deteriorating body.

Though solidly directed by David Ferry, Piece by Piece is too obviously just variations on a theme; it feels like three under-drawn playlets juxtaposed, rather than a compelling ensemble drama in its own right. Only the balanced conflict between Jessie and her husband (an excellent John Cleland) truly creates real fireworks. Perhaps Lawrence's drama could be deepened outside of a 90-minute festival slot.

Mine, a tepid new play by Jenna Harris about a romantic relationship between a sexy poet (Michelle Polak) and a shy psychologist (Jenna Harris), is even more lacking in drama. Scenes from a relationship obviously mined from autobiography stumble from meet-cute to moving-in, with any interesting conflict or plot forever waiting in the wings. It doesn't help that due to a confusing framing device followed by a repetitive opening, awkwardly directed by Clinton Walker, I spent the whole play waiting – hoping – for other characters to show up.

The Fringe is one of the few places you can find new stage comedies. Next Stage offers up For a Good Time, Call Kathy Blanchard by Michael Ross Albert – and it is almost worth seeing just for the chance of seeing Jennifer Dzialoszynski, the diminutive actress so funny last summer in When We Were Married at the Shaw Festival, getting a chance to act her age (and her accent!). But Albert's comedy about two cousins in a big family and their complicated love lives never really connects with the funny bone – and relies on a series of off-stage crashes to move its contrived plot along. Jim Warren's production comes to brief, lively life when Lawrence (the fine Daniel Pagett) and his girlfriend, Amanda (the up-and-coming Caroline Toal), get into the madness of the Gen Y job market – but otherwise, it feels oddly disconnected from the times and lacking in daring.

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After watching these scripts seemingly saved from the reject pile of Tarragon Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times and Factory Theatre, respectively, DINK came as a surprise – a dark comedy with music, inspired by the terrible true story of Canadian murderer and rapist, former colonel Russell Williams.

Caroline Azar, the playwright and director, was a founding member of the early 1980s post-punk band Fifth Column, and in her envisioning, the victims of a similar military monster return from beyond the grave to take revenge through song.

A brilliantly creepy David Keeley (Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages) stars as Bill, a Canadian colonel who becomes obsessed with a Saskatchewan soldier (Andrea Brown) and her coffee-slinging girlfriend (Lise Cormier).

But DINK – the titular acronym stands for Double Income, No Kids – is equally concerned with Bill's obliviously happy wife, Deb (Sharon Heldt), and her discontented but clear-eyed sister, Lolly (a very funny Christy Bruce).

The action bounces from a Tim Hortons in Kandahar to a Holt Renfrew in Toronto. The dialogue is stylish, the interspersed songs tuneful, the characters original and funny, and just when you think the show is over, a teenage girl (Jasmine Chen) pops up on stage with a bow and arrow to take the plot to disturbing new depths.

Structurally, however, DINK is one hot mess – with a wobbling timeline, unnecessary tangents and a series of false endings. There could be the next Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love buried in here, but its going to take some serious work to dig it out (and give it a more relevant title). At least Azar is going for it, though.

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The Next Stage Theatre Festival continues until Jan. 18 (fringetoronto.com).

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