Stage Door Review

Bed and Breakfast

Monday, December 10, 2018

✭✭✭✭✩

by Mark Crawford, directed by Ashlie Corcoran

Great Canadian Theatre Company, Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, Ottawa

December 6-22, 2018;

Touring Canada until November 2, 2019 – see below

Brett: “A home is where your people are. I think that’s what we wanted and that’s what we got”

Mark Crawford’s warm-hearted comedy Bed and Breakfast has just opened at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in a new production headed by Ashlie Corcoran that premiered in Montreal and will travel across Canada until well into next year. The GCTC production has the advantage over all other productions in that Crawford himself and his real-life partner Paul Dunn will be playing the roles of the play’s central gay couple Brett and Drew. Incisive direction from Corcoran and a clever, more abstract design from Dana Osborne makes this the best production of Crawford’s popular play so far.

Just last August Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company presented Bed and Breakfast with the real-life couple of Gregory Prest and Paolo Santalucia as Brett and Drew. The show received raves and was held over by popular demand. While Prest and Santalucia’s wonderful acting cannot be faulted, comparison with the GCTC production reveals that it is possible to present the play more subtly and in doing so give it greater emotional heft.

In Crawford’s script the play is overtly presented as a play. The nominal reason Brett and Drew are performing the play for us is because they had a momentous decision to make and performing the play is their way of explaining why they made the decision they did. In the Soulpepper production the notion of the play-as-play tended to slide into the background. Corcoran, however, keeps it much more in the foreground so that we focus more on how Brett and Drew act the 20 or so other characters in the play, and not on those characters themselves.

How did two men with good jobs in Toronto came to be running a bed and breakfast in a small town in Ontario three hours away from the big city? The simple answer is that Maggie, Brett’s favourite aunt, has suddenly died and has left him her house in her will. Brett and Drew had been trying unsuccessfully to move from their condo into a house in Toronto. Now they think that they can fix up Aunt Maggie’s house located in a small tourist town and use the sale to finance buying house in Toronto. Once they see the huge house, they realize that fixing it up will be a major project. Besides, the house has memories for Brett since he used to spend every August there when he was growing up.

Yet, as we see, neither Brett nor Drew are that happy in their jobs in Toronto. Brett is an interior designer with a television show and Drew is an assistant hotel manager. Gradually, the thought dawns on them that with Brett’s skills in design and Drew’s skills in managing, they could move into Aunt Maggie’s house and turn it into a B&B. The major problem they face is whether the residents of this small town will accept a gay couple living in their midst. After a few minor homophobic encounters and a major homophobic incident at Christmas the couple has to reassess their commitment to stay.

The answer to this is much more complicated. Partially, it is because Brett discovers that as Maggie’s nephew the town expects him to take on some of the duties she performed, such as organizing the town’s Santa Claus parade. Partially, it is because they have found they really like the new friends they have made. And partially, when Brett’s nearly inarticulate nephew Cody asks to spend the summers with them to get away from his parents, Brett sees that he is taking on Maggie’s role of providing a safe haven for a confused young man.

Although the play is a comedy, as the action progresses it gradually becomes clear that it is also a mystery. Crawford drops clue after clue that finally come together to explain why Brett feels even more committed to living in the small town than before. The central irony in the play is that, contrary to popular prejudice, the gay characters have nothing to hide whereas the straight characters are mired in a complex series of secrets.

Crawford’s play is also very smart in showing that there is no one type of gay male. Brett and Drew, two professionals in a might-as-well-be-married relationship, represent only one type of gay person and indeed the type most palatable to heterosexuals. Drew’s friend the real estate agent Ray (Crawford) represents an old-school gay male, dripping with wit and sarcasm and in the habit of calling guys “girls”. The play also has an example of an older gay male who assumes that because a younger man is gay and out that he must also be promiscuous. On the other hand, the play has an example of a gay man from the younger generation who sees Brett and Drew’s habit of pigeonholing people according to their sexuality as “old-fashioned”. The subtle point of portraying such a range of views is to demonstrate that there is at least as much a diversity of attitudes among gay people toward gayness as there are among straight people toward straightness.

When Prest and Santalucia played Brett and Drew, the two partners seemed almost interchangeable. Crawford and Dunn make them much more distinct. Crawford’s Brett is more deliberate and slow to jump to conclusions, while Dunn’s Drew is more tightly wound and prone to think the worst. We can see how Brett would be attracted to Drew’s energy and how Drew would be attracted to Brett’s stability.

The notion of two men not being stuck in a single preconceived form of identity is reinforced by Crawford’s having the actors playing Brett and Drew also play all the other characters. Crawford plays Brett’s own unassertive mother, Brett’s macho brother Steve, Drew’s elderly gay real estate agent Ray along with two quite different female guests at the B&B. Most memorable among Crawford’s characters is Alison, an endearing woman who is happy to unleash her inner looniness and runs the only espresso shop in town, and Alison’s teenaged son Dustin, who is very shy and can only show his liking for people by baking them presents.

Dunn plays Brett’s tight-lipped dad Martin, the couple’s strangely resentful workman Doug, the couple’s kindly elderly neighbour Harold, Alison’s tough Irish partner Chris, a horny newlywed B&B guest Chuck and a slimy British B&B guest Travis. Dunn’s most memorable character is Steve’s incommunicative teenaged son Cody, who answers “I dunno” to every question.

The first important difference in Corcoran’s direction, in contrast to Kerr’s direction for Soulpepper, is not to have either Crawford or Dunn use any props whatsoever to effect their change from character to character. Corcoran makes Crawford and Dunn rely solely on changes in voice, posture and gesture to define each character and in so doing she places greater emphasis on acting in its purest form.

Luckily, Crawford and Dunn are wonderfully able to fulfil this demand. One of the great delights of watching the play is how with a split-second pivot each actor can shift immediately from role to role. Periodically, when they both switch from playing other roles to playing Brett and Drew, Corcoran has Crawford and Dunn jump simultaneously using the sound of their landing to mark the shift. Under Corcoran’s direction the action moves swiftly and incisively.

The second important difference in Corcoran’s direction, in contrast to Kerr’s is to have Crawford and Dunn tone down all their characterizations. In the Soulpepper production, all the characterizations were overblown as if Kerr were trying to make the play funnier by having her actors make the characters more eccentric. Corcoran, however, trusts that there is enough humour already inherent in Crawford’s play. After all, if Brett and Drew are trying to show us why they stayed in a small town, why would they make all the town’s denizens seem like zany caricatures? One fears that Kerr may have brought a big city prejudice to bear on her depictions of small town folk.

The great benefit of Corcoran’s direction is that the structure of the play is much clearer since we are not constantly being distracted by the quirks of the small town peoples’ lives. This, in turn, makes the mystery that is the backbone of the play, much more central. Corcoran has this plot reach its climax when Brett reads a forgotten letter by his Aunt Maggie. In a lovely moment missing from the Soulpepper production, Corcoran has Crawford gradually shift during his reading of the letter from Brett’s voice to that of Aunt Maggie’s.

Just as Corcoran has decided that the play’s colourful characters should not be so garish as to distract from the story, so Dana Osborne’s set in contrast to to Alexandra Lord’s busy set for Soulpepper, is almost classically abstract. The set is entirely in grey, with a single door stage right and an opening with a pillar stage right. This way, depending on Kimberley Purtell’s sensitive lighting, it can suggest the couple’s Toronto condo, and the interior and exterior of the house Brett inherits in a small town. In the centre is a solid object the shape of a double bed but which essentially a wooden box. Without a duvet, the thick headboard can become a counter in a coffee shop or in a kitchen or if someone sits in it, his feet on the “bed”, it becomes the cab of a truck. Thus, just as the actors can morph into any number of characters, Osborne’s set can morph into any number of places.

Furthermore, Osborne, though she has given Crawford and Dunn several costume changes, has restricted all their clothing choices to shades of grey. Visually, this links the two more closely to the set which represents both their former and future homes. Symbolically, Osborne demonstrates that Crawford’s play is not about issues that are black and white, or straight or gay, but about all the complex possibilities in life that defy simple categories.

In short, you could hardly expect to see a better production of Bed and Breakfast than the one current playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. That fact that this will tour means that this fine production of Crawford’s fine play will get the wide exposure that they both deserve. It is heartening to find a director like Corcoran, who recognizes that Crawford’s play may be a comedy but that it is also as deeply thoughtful as it is funny.

Christopher Hoile

Tour stops after Ottawa, ON:

• Globe Theatre, Regina, SK

Jan 16-Feb 3, 2019;

☛ Arts Club, Vancouver, BC

April 4-May 4, 2019;

• Blyth Festival, Blyth, ON

September 11-28;

• The BlueShore at CapU, North Vancouver, BC

October 3, 2019;

• Kay Meek Arts Centre, West Vancouver, BC

October 4-5, 2019

• Clarke Theatre, Mission, BC

October 6, 2019;

• Anvil Centre, New Westminster, BC

October 7, 2019;

• Surrey Arts Centre, Surrey

October 9-20, 2019;

• The ACT Arts Centre, Maple Ridge, BC

October 24-25, 2019;

• Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Burnaby, BC

October 26-27, 2019;

• Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, BC

October 29-November 2, 2019

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: Mark Crawford and Paul Dunn; Mark Crawford and Paul Dunn; Paul Dunn and Mark Crawford. © 2018 Andrée Lanthier.

For tickets, visit www.gctc.ca.