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John Beale, left, as Kyle Best and Daniel MacIvor as Hamilton Best in “The Best Brothers.”

Cylla & Vincent von Tiedemann/Cylla von Tiedemann

3.5 out of 4 stars

The Best Brothers
Written by
Daniel MacIvor
Directed by
Dean Gabourie
Daniel MacIvor, John Beale
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Stratford, Ont.

Certain plays make you laugh until your sides hurts, while others make you cry like your best friend just died.

The Best Brothers doesn't do either of those things, but it does make you want a dog. It makes you ache for one, in fact. If you already have a canine companion, it might make you want a second.

Nova Scotian national treasure Daniel MacIvor's latest, perhaps his most heartwarming and potentially crowd-pleasing comedy to date, concerns three brothers: serious Hamilton, who builds condos; flaky Kyle, who sells condos; and Enzo, who will tear a condo or any other dwelling to shreds with his teeth if you leave him unattended.

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The first two are human; the third, a mostly off-stage character, is an Italian greyhound.

After Bunny, who is "mother" to all three, dies suddenly in a ludicrous accident at a Gay Pride parade involving a swarthy drag queen named Pina Colada, the brothers must do their best to settle the estate.

Brought up together in a financially privileged but emotionally insecure environment, Kyle (Maritime actor John Beale, making his Stratford debut) and Hamilton (MacIvor, making a long overdue festival debut as playwright) now have a rather distant adult relationship – with the gay younger brother living a nomadic and slightly shady existence, and the older one in a stable marriage and on the straight and narrow in every way.

Among the long-standing bones of contention between the two is the time Kyle brought a male prostitute to Christmas dinner. "He's not my sex worker – that's just what he does for a living," Kyle says, not getting why Hamilton would object at all.

Sleeping sibling rivalry awakens as the two prepare for the funeral and have trouble agreeing on anything – down to the wording of the obituary.

Deciding whether Bunny is a "beloved" or "loving" mother is one (loaded) matter, but when Kyle suggests they include their "other brother" Enzo in the write-up, Hamilton's long-simmering grievances over who mom loved more really burst to the surface. Secrets are gradually revealed over the course of the next few weeks – but subtle ones, not the usual family-drama tropes. MacIvor has the dynamics between siblings so right, you'll feel like he's been hacking into your Skype chats.

Beale and MacIvor also take turns donning green gloves to resurrect Bunny, who delivers a very MacIvorian monologue – unsettling and slightly psychotropic – from beyond the grave about her children, the men who entered and exited her life over the years after her divorce, and how a camping trip with aging hippies led her to adopt Enzo late in life.

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Under the understated direction of Dean Gabourie, The Best Brothers unfolds gently in front of a variety of ever-changing green apertures designed by Julie Fox. (Don't sit too far to the sides, though, as a couple of scenes are staged through a gap that opens in the back.)

MacIvor's plays are often inextricably linked to the actors who originate the roles in them, but in this case, while Beale lives and breathes the lovably lost Kyle, the role of Hamilton doesn't fit MacIvor quite as well. A more aggressively urban actor than MacIvor might bring greater contrast to the role.

There are a few moments of The Best Brothers that meander a tad – or, perhaps, could use less laissez-faire direction – while Hamilton's climatic speech about Lego is contrived in its moment of self-revelation.

But, ultimately, it's one of the most beautifully bittersweet plays MacIvor has written. And Bunny's treatise on dogs and love near the end of the play will convince you that you desperately need both, no matter what your allergist says.

Point is, if the SPCA temporarily sets up shop across the street from the Studio Theatre, a whole pack of unwanted dogs will be adopted in by the end of the run. I'll take one.

The Best Brothers runs until Sept. 16 at the Studio Theatre in Stratford, Ont.

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