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theatre review

Calpurnia’s comedy begins in the dining room of the Gordons, a well-to-do Jamaican-Canadian family living in Toronto.Dahlia Katz

Veuve Clicquot and Cheetos.

Playwright Audrey Dwyer's Calpurnia is a mix of sparkling and synthetic – just like the evidence we find of a late-night party as the comedy begins in the dining room of the Gordons, a well-to-do Jamaican-Canadian family living in Toronto.

Precy (the excellent Carolyn Fe), the Gordon family's Filipina cook and maid, is hard at work cleaning up empty bottles of pricey champagne and wiping up orange crumbs from cheap cheese-flavoured snacks as the lights come up.

Meanwhile, screenwriter Julie Gordon (Meghan Swaby) sits at the table tapping away at her laptop – frantically working on rewrites to a script that will retell To Kill a Mockingbird from the perspective of the Finch family's African-American cook and maid, Calpurnia.

Julie's on a deadline to fix it – the feedback from her agent being that she just hasn't found the right voice for Calpurnia yet.

It doesn't help that Mark (Matthew Brown), Julie's brother and an up-and-coming lawyer just profiled in the Toronto Star, feels the need to interrupt with his opinions about how her artistic project is artistically bankrupt.

To Kill a Mockingbird is Mark's favourite book and movie – and not in need of any sort of revision whatsoever in his mind. And, he adds, what does his sister know about being an African-American in Alabama in the 1930s any better than Harper Lee anyway? "You're rich; you live in Forest Hill," he admonishes her. "The only black men you know are dad and I."

If Mark's position sounds harsh, Julie is similarly extreme in her dislike of the original book. "Atticus Finch was the worst," she says – enumerating the fictional lawyer's crimes, such as "slut-shaming" a woman on the stand and refusing to challenge a white jury on their "privilege."

The sibling rivalry between Julie and Mark comes to a head in the second scene of Dwyer's play – when their father, Judge Lawrence Gordon (Andrew Moodie), hosts a white lawyer from a prestigious firm named James (Don Allison) for dinner in an attempt to get him to hire his son.

Mark and his white girlfriend, Christine (Natasha Greenblatt), try to put their best foot forward for James – but Julie trips the entire evening up by trying a really unorthodox way to nail down Calpurnia's voice. I don't want to spoil the twist, but Swaby gives an outrageous comic performance from here on in.

Calpurnia, a co-production between Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre, has an undeniably great premise – with its ripped-from-Twitter arguments about our ongoing culture wars over appropriation, intersectionality and what exactly it means to be "woke."

Problems, unfortunately, arise in Dwyer's execution of her concept – primarily because she's put characters on stage who are not internally consistent.

The irony of Julie trying to understand a fictional maid while knowing nothing of the woman who has worked in her house all her life is clear – but, unfortunately, the playwright keeps underlining this point to the point where it's impossible to imagine anyone being this simultaneously smart and oblivious.

Similarly, Christine – played with comic deftness by Greenblatt – is a white woman whose contradictions are hard to fully account for. She's closely attuned to racial micro-aggressions one moment, then suggests it's racist that white people can't use the N-word in the next. It feels artificial.

Brown also shines as Mark – but an explanation for his complete dismissal of his sister's artistic project never arrives. How can you be a hotshot lawyer and yet not understand the concept of dramatic licence?

In short, Dwyer keeps throwing her characters under the bus for the sake of conflict. Directing the premiere production of her own play, she can't quite find the right satirical tone to make this comedy convince instead of seem like a construction. It's frustrating to see a play with so much promise not quite land. Hopefully, like Julie, she'll get a second chance to fine-tune the voices of her characters for a future production.

Calpurnia (nightwoodtheatre.net) continues to Feb. 4