Five years ago, Studio 180 had a triumph in Toronto with its moving and memorable revival of The Normal Heart – American playwright Larry Kramer's 1985 outraged drama about the early years of the AIDS pandemic in New York.
Now, the Toronto independent theatre company is looking to the same era and crisis again – but from the other side of the pond.
My Night With Reg, which Studio 180 is producing as part of the Off-Mirvish season, is a 1994 comedy-drama by the late British playwright Kevin Elyot.
It takes place over three scenes set in the London flat of a gay man named Guy (Jonathan Wilson) – each at a summer party, each of which takes place a year and a few hours in the evening later than the previous one.
The first is Guy's flat-warming, where the perpetually single, bowtie-wearing copywriter reunites with his old university drama club chums, Daniel (Jeff Miller) and John (Gray Powell). Daniel has recently found what he believes to be true love with a man named Reg – but, unbeknownst to him, so has John.
In fact, Reg seems to get around a fair bit, as we learn in subsequent scenes that introduce us to a pair of working-class pals named Benny (a very funny Martin Happer) and Bernie (Tim Funnell) .
The title character remains off-stage for the entire play, however – just as another three-letter spectre that haunts the play, HIV, is never said aloud. But gradually what could be a sex farce at first transforms, almost against its will, into a more poignant play due to the unseen and unspoken.
Indeed, despite the nudity, the sex and a bit of graphic language, there's something in My Night With Reg that recalls older British drawing room dramas.
The older men's interactions with a younger house painter named Eric (Alex Furber, who starred in War Horse for Mirvish) brought to mind Terence Rattigan's After the Dance – a 1939 play about the "bright young things" of the 1920s aging and clashing with a more serious, conservative younger generation on the eve of the Second World War.
There's repression alongside explicitness in Elyot's play, and it shares with Rattigan's work an exploration of what British critic Michael Billington has called the English middle-class values of "fear of emotional commitment [and] terror in the face of passion." The horror of the AIDS pandemic is the backdrop to the action, but the inability of these characters to speak about what's in their hearts is what is truly tragic.
In director Joel Greenberg's production, this is most beautifully depicted in the complicated friendship between John and Daniel. A scene where the two silently dance to David Bowie's Starman, secrets the only thing between them, is most affecting. As Powell, one of the Shaw Festival's best actors, and Miller ache, cheek to cheek, you see how much has changed in the world and their lives since they first danced to the song, carefree, a decade and a half earlier.
The comedic aspects of My Night With Reg, a not unsubstantial part of the play, had not come similarly alive by the final preview performance. Wilson's central take on the uptight Guy felt too studied and distanced, and there was a general stiltedness to the delivery of a steady stream of double entendres and innuendo that owe as much to Benny Hill and the Carry On franchise as anything.
Designer John Thompson's set for Guy's flat works against the play – all squares and rectangles, everything at right angles with a perfectly placed couch at its centre. It almost looks like a parody of a realistic set and sets up expectations for something less human to follow.
There may be a lost-in-translation element, too: Elyot's play, which has never really caught on in North America, had a revival recently on London's West End, but Studio 180's production is, in fact, the Canadian premiere.
There's an English specificity to the show, places and pop culture references, talk of "public schools" (what we call private schools) and other class-based distinctions that Canadians may understand, but that don't resonate at the same deep level.
What would be really illuminating would be for Studio 180 – or any of the theatre companies in town, really – to invest similar resources in revisiting the Canadian plays from the height of the AIDS crisis here and see how they stand up. What does Brad Fraser's 1994 play Poor Super Man – named one of the top plays of the year by Time Magazine at the time – look like now? Or Daniel MacIvor's 1997 The Soldier Dreams? That's only scratching the surface.
My Night With Reg (mirvish.com) continues to Feb 26.