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The Best Brothers: A tame take on sibling rivalry

Daniel MacIvor and John Beale in The Best Brothers.

Cylla von Tiedemann

3 out of 4 stars

The Best Brothers
Written by
Daniel MacIvor
Directed by
Dean Gabourie
John Beale and Daniel MacIvor
Tarragon Theatre
Runs Until
Sunday, October 27, 2013

A decade ago, playwright Daniel MacIvor scored a big popular success with Marion Bridge, his much-produced drama about sisterly dynamics that became a film starring Molly Parker and a pre-Juno Ellen Page. Appropriately enough, he now has another audience winner with The Best Brothers, a fraternal variation on the same theme.

First produced at last year's Stratford Festival and opening Tarragon Theatre's new season, The Best Brothers is an unabashedly crowd-pleasing comedy about two siblings, their late mother and her pet dog. It is by turns very funny, mildly whimsical and gently moving. And while it features a volatile Italian greyhound capable of wrecking a $250,000 kitchen reno and ending a marriage, the play itself finds its once-edgy creator at his most docile and pleasing.

In this remount of Dean Gabourie's hit Stratford production, MacIvor and John Beale recreate their roles as the eponymous brothers. MacIvor is Hamilton, an uptight architect, and Beale is Kyle, a flighty real estate agent. When we first see them, they are separately receiving the news that their mother has died in a tragicomic accident – crushed to death by a large Filipino drag queen named Pina Colada, who drunkenly toppled off a float during a pride parade.

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The fact that Mrs. Best was only at the parade because Kyle is gay proves to be just one of the resentments Hamilton holds against his kid brother. As they get together to compose an obituary and organize the funeral, their conflicting personalities and attitudes are immediately apparent. In an inspired touch, MacIvor the writer turns the two middle-aged men into a consanguine comedy team. Beale's sweetly smiling Kyle is upbeat, artless and addicted to endless synonyms. MacIvor's sour-faced Hamilton is his exasperated straight man – when they converse, you can almost see the steam coming out of his ears.

Their Laurel-and-Hardy act reaches a comic climax when they share the podium for their mother's eulogy. By then it's clear that they are also classic sibling rivals: Hamilton is the high-achieving older sib who feels his mother lavished more love on the less-promising Kyle.

We learn this not just from them, but from mother herself. At various points the two actors take turns incarnating Mrs. Ardith "Bunny" Best, who gives us her own version of the family history in a series of tart monologues. She also reveals how she found love late in life courtesy of what Kyle calls their "other brother" – her greyhound Enzo.

The custody of Enzo becomes the focal point of the play and a catalyst for brotherly rapprochement. It also occasions some of MacIvor's warmest writing, as he describes the pure joy of unconditional canine love.

I wish I had the same unconditional feelings for the play. It is skillfully written, with some laugh-out-loud moments, but at times it can be a tad too facile. In particular, Hamilton's meant-to-be-soul-baring soliloquy, about Lego and the loss of imagination, is amusing but trite.

I have no qualms about the acting, however. Beale (who, due to an offstage accident, had his left hand in a cast on opening night) is delightfully scatty as Kyle. Yet he also shows us the man's lingering sense of inadequacy as he repeatedly justifies himself to his brother. MacIvor is a master at playing mean-spirited types and he milks it for laughs early on. But we sympathize with Hamilton when it becomes clear his irritability is an outward symptom of deep unhappiness.

When the pair impersonate Bunny Best – MacIvor somewhat archly, Beale more simply – they ceremoniously don her green gardening hat and gloves. The gimmick is reduced to shorthand by the end of the play, when they wear only one glove.

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Julie Fox's costumes are particularly expressive of character. Staid Hamilton is almost always clad in blacks and greys; cheerful Kyle rocks various candy-striped shirts. Bunny's fondness for green, meanwhile, is reflected in Fox's verdant set and Itai Erdal's lighting. Dean Gabourie's staging is flawless – it has a simple elegance of which Hamilton would surely approve.

This mellow, likable play is much more satisfying than MacIvor's most recent piece, last season's Arigato, Tokyo. Yet if you know his earlier work, you can't help but feel a twinge of longing for the wild dog who gave us such dark, devious solo shows as Monster and Cul-de-sac, and that more ingenious two-man play, In On It. Next to those puppies, The Best Brothers is disappointingly tame.

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