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theatre review

Tony Nappo, Julian Richings, Anand Rajaram in Mustard, at the Tarragon Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann


Written by Kat Sandler

Directed by Ashlie Corcoran

Starring Anand Rajaram

At the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, runs until March 13

Two and a half stars


Dalton and Company

Written by Paul Dunn

Directed by Matthew Gorman

Starring Catherine Fitch and Marcel Stewart

At the Theatre Centre in Toronto, runs until Feb. 28

How do new Canadian plays get to the stage? In Toronto, you basically have two routes: Indie or alternative.

Kat Sandler's latest play, Mustard, is an uneasy marriage of the two. Sandler has been a success story of the city's do-it-yourself indie scene, entrepreneurially producing several new comedies a year at festivals and ramshackle venues such as The Storefont Theatre.

Like the young George F. Walker back in the 1970s, Sandler has found an eager following with funny, dark plays not afraid of showing their pop-culture influences. Where Walker looked to B-movies and film noir, Sandler has borrowed from vampire films, action movies and heist comedies.

Tarragon Theatre, meanwhile, is the most successful of the "alternative" theatres, the companies focused on Canadian playwrights that popped up in the 1970s. The "alts" were essentially the "indies" of their day – but they came about at the right time and have grown up into proper institutions with operating grants and reliable donor bases.

With Mustard at Tarragon, then, Sandler has made the leap – or, perhaps, the sideways step – from indie to alternative.

The condiment of the title refers to the main character, the ultimate friend who doesn't know when to leave the party. The only difference is that Mustard (Anand Rajaram) is an imaginary friend. He belongs to 16-year-old Thai (Rebecca Liddiard) – who has little time for her brightly coloured, scatologically minded pal these days, since she has a number of adult and non-imaginary issues to deal with.

Thai's father left the family a year ago and her mother, Sadie (Sarah Dodd), is drinking and popping pills to cope. Meanwhile, her 20-year-old boyfriend, Jay (Paolo Santalucia), – who thinks he's dating an 18-year-old – has accidentally impregnated her and believes marriage is the solution.

Mustard, looking like a teething toy in a jester's hat in Michael Gianfrancesco's insufficiently imaginative design, wants to lighten the mood with jokes and rough-house games, but he's more trouble than help at this point. This is why a pair of imaginary thugs named Bug and Leslie (Tony Nappo and Julian Richings) have shown up, to punish Mustard for hanging around too long and force him into retirement.

The strongest asset of director Ashlie Corcoran's production is its committed cast, an excellent group of actors who find a cohesive style for a split-personality play. At the top of the pack are a game Rajaram, giving it his all as Mustard, and Dodd, who finds heart and gravitas in the sad single-mom cliché of Sadie – who suddenly develops the ability to see her daughter's imaginary friend.

Mustard and Sadie's interactions bring a new meaning to the expression "I'm seeing someone" – and it's in this part of the play that Sandler finds a winning offbeat rom-com tone. Otherwise, Mustard is oddly light in laughs – and suffers from artificialities and inconsistencies in fantastic plot.

For instance, Nappo and Richling's imaginary-friend police start by threatening Mustard with violence – but, for some reason, their power diminishes rather than builds over the course of the play, until they're left standing by ineffectually, trading bizarre banter.

Other parts of the fantasy world are unclear in construction. Are Mustard's look and personality a product of Thai's imagination? Is he his own independent creature? Or – as is hastily suggested near the end – is he somehow connected to her father? The lack of specific answers feels indecisive rather than ambiguous. Perhaps if I were seeing a Sandler play for the first time, I would have been more enthusiastic about this zany play, but I've seen her do more with less resources and institutional support.

Paul Dunn's Dalton And Company is another script, like Mustard, developed as part of the Tarragon Playwrights Unit. It's gone the other direction, from alternative to indie, and is now having its premiere at the Theatre Centre, however, in a production by Cart/Horse Theatre.

Dunn, co-writer of the excellent collective creation The Gay Heritage Project currently on a Canadian tour, has penned an issue play about sexual favouritism set in the university office of a famous author and creative writing professor named Daniel Dalton.

Charlie (Marcel Stewart), an aspiring technical writer, is hired as an office grunt by Dalton's long-time personal assistant Karen (Catherine Fitch) based more on his smile and eagerness than his résumé. His selection offends grad students Randy (Andy Trithardt) and especially Linda (Julia Course), who believe he doesn't deserve this proximity to a great writer.

But matters only come to a head when the unseen Dalton takes a fancy to Charlie that may be based more on sexual than intellectual interest – and invites him along to a conference in Spain instead of Linda or Randy.

I say "may," but Dunn spells everything out in this dry play given an arid production here by Matthew Gorman.

Every so often, a potentially interesting play about power and privilege seems within sight, with the setting suggesting a certain nod to David Mamet's Oleanna. "You should remember your place," Linda says to Charlie at one point – a line particularly shocking given Charlie is played by the only actor of colour in a cast of white actors. But I guess Gorman's production must be colour blind because no one reacts to it, or ever mentions race in any other context.

Class questions largely sit on the sidelines, too. In its unbelievably simplistic characters and single-minded focus on the question of sexual favouritism, Dunn's play feels like more of a working out of a grudge than a drama – and plods its way to an unsurprising conclusion.