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The Trouble with Mr. Adams, starring Sydney Owchar and Chris Earle, is about a man having a mid-life crisis.

Cylla von Tiedemann

The Trouble with Mr. Adams

Written by Gord Rand

Directed by Lisa Peterson

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Starring Chris Earle,

Philippa Domville

Tarragon Theatre in Toronto

0 stars

Shannon 10:40

Written and directed by Rob Kempson

Starring Qasim Khan, Hallie Seline

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Videofag in Toronto

***

Does Gord Rand have no one looking out for him? A friend – or if not a friend, then a fellow actor, or a playwright, or an artistic director – should have stepped in and stopped him from having his midlife crisis in such an embarrassing and public fashion.

Instead, inexplicably, The Trouble With Mr. Adams – a new play by Rand about a physical education teacher roughly his age having a midlife crisis – is currently having its world premiere at a respected theatre company under the direction of a respected director.

We first meet coach Gary (Chris Earle) upon his arrival back at his home in a suburb of Toronto from a high-school volleyball tournament. He greets his wife Peggy (Philippa Domville) as follows: "I'm leaving you. It'll be great."

Not a bad opening line, but it all goes downhill from there. As it happens, Gary is in love – or believes he is in love – with his star volleyball player, a girl who recently turned 16 and has the entirely condescending character name of Mercedes McPfefferidge.

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"Love" is, of course, not how everyone sees Gary and his feelings – and Peggy informs her husband that she has heard from Mercedes's parents and his star pupil has "come to believe you raped her." This gulf in perception – for the moment give Gary the benefit of doubt – has been the subject of many controversial works of dramatic literature of varying levels of sensitivity over the years.

And with questions of consent so often making headlines these days, and the idea of rape culture now common currency, there is an argument to be made that a new story from a male point of view might be worthwhile. But Rand is not seriously interested in any of the pressing issues of today – he is primarily concerned with the idea of "midlife crisis" and how Gary's life is "destroyed" by his love. He has written an unfunny comedy that never rises above the flip tone of his opening line.

What Rand wants to do – and he's enlisted director Lisa Peterson as his willing collaborator – is be provocative above all: So, naturally, Peggy's response to her husband being accused of rape is to don a cheerleader's outfit and have sex with him, then speak in a derogatory fashion about his alleged victim.

The Trouble with Mr. Adams plays out in three two-person scenes between Gary and similarly poorly drawn female characters – each focused almost entirely on the coach's feelings. After his wife comes a union lawyer (Allegra Fulton), who speaks to Gary in exactly the same dripping, knowing tone.

Last, and most problematically, comes Mercedes herself (Sydney Owchar), two years later, at the age of 18, in short shorts and a tight shirt, wide-eyed and speaking like no one teenager ever has. She punctuates every sentence, through pouted lips, with a mildly protesting: "Mr. Adams."

Director Lisa Peterson (who directed Rand in The Philanderer at the Shaw Festival) and costume designer Charlotte Dean have sexualized all the female characters – but Mercedes is the most troublesome. The discourse around this teenager runs the gamut from she wanted it, to she asked for it.

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What's the trouble with The Trouble With Mr. Adams beyond its stone-age gender politics? Well, on the first level of drama, the level of narrative coherence, it fails entirely. It's very difficult to figure out what Gary is actually accused of, who has filed what charges against him, and under what planet's sexual assault laws.

Plot-wise, the first two scenes are mostly concerned with trying to get to the bottom of what happened between Gary and Mercedes during three hours they were stuck in a car by the side of the road during a freak April snowstorm. Specifically, there are minutes of mind-numbing dialogue where Gary tries to figure out whether Mercedes was 15 years old or 16 years old that day.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the laws in Canada would immediately know that this is a moot point – Mercedes could not legally consent to any sexual activity with Mr. Adams, a person in a relationship of authority to her, until she was 18.

In addition to its ignorance of its own subject matter, The Trouble with Mr. Adams is stylistically immature. At times, Rand gropes for the poetic – but mostly his script oscillates between irksome sitcom punchlines ("Chardonnay is white, right?" Gary asks his wife) and profane provocations (Gary describes sex with his wife as trying to fit a "half-inflated balloon into a mailslot").

What on earth was Tarragon Theatre artistic director Richard Rose thinking when he programmed this?

By pure coincidence, another new drama about a male phys ed teacher's inappropriate interactions with a young female student opened this week at the feisty independent theatre Videofag in Kensington Market.

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Unlike The Trouble with Mr. Adams, however, Shannon 10:40 – written by an earnest young playwright named Rob Kempson – seems to have been written in this century.

Shannon (Hallie Seline) is a teenage "dyke" – she prefers that word as "lesbian sounds like a chemical in baloney." She has been in a relationship with a fellow student named Samara, and thought their love was reciprocal – until one day her girlfriend told her she didn't think she was gay.

This makes Shannon, testy at the best of times, even more alienated during health class one Monday morning. And when she is, once again, implored to learn how to put a condom on a banana, she instead pulls out the dildo that she keeps in her backpack (so that her parents don't stumble upon it at home) and asks her teacher to talk about masturbation.

Mr. Fisher (Qasim Khan), "Big Gay Fisher" behind his back, is her physical education and health teacher – and he makes the mistake of taking up Shannon's offer, and the bigger mistake of picking up the sex toy she has brought to school with her. Another student films him talking enthusiastically about the art of self-pleasuring while waving it around – and when that ends up on YouTube, Mr. Fisher and Shannon finds themselves at the centre of a raging social media and media debate about Ontario sexual education.

Kempson works in high schools as an artist educator – and he has emerged from this work with an understanding of the tricky, semi-open atmosphere both queer students and teachers continue to operate in.

Told in a series of monologues by Shannon and Mr. Fisher, Shannon 10:40 is not the most stylistically stimulating work, and it has an activist theatre feel. But it makes us consider the complexities of the world we live in for an hour or so – and is given a boost in excitement by being performed in very close proximity to the audience.

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Both actors rise to the challenge of this intimate, immersive space. Khan, in particular, is bang-on.

The Trouble with Mr. Adams (tarragontheatre.com) continues to Nov. 29. Shannon 10:40 (brownpapertickets.com) continues to Nov. 9.

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