Stage Door Review

The Fixer-Upper

Monday, September 13, 2021

✭✭

by Lorne Elliott, directed by Simon Joynes

Port Stanley Festival Theatre, Grace Auditorium, Port Stanley

September 8-October 9, 2021

“If at first you don’t succeed, lower your expectations”

As part of its 2021 season the Port Stanley Festival Theatre is presenting Lorne Elliott’s comedy The Fixer-Upper. Elliott is best known as the host of the long-running CBC Radio comedy series Madly Off in All Directions from 1995 to 2006. The Fixer-Upper, which premiered in 2000, is his most durable play and is well on its way to being considered a classic of Canadian comedy. Part of the reason for this is the play’s innovative structure. It is subtitled “A comedy in seven phone calls” and so it is. Except for   opening and closing remarks addressed to the audience the play is comprised entirely of phone calls between one actor onstage and another, who in this production, is heard but not seen.

There are, of course, other plays that are composed only of telephone calls like La Voix humaine (1930) by Jean Cocteau or Sorry, Wrong Number (1943) by Lucille Fletcher. Neither play is comic and both use the telephone as a image of that character’s isolation and helplessness. Yet, there are at least two sides to every symbol. The main character of The Fixer-Upper is also isolated and helpless but this is one of the main sources of the play’s comedy.

The action takes place in front of the run-down shack in PEI that Bruno McIntyre (Jamie Williams) has inherited from his father. Bruno, generally known in his family as a layabout, thinks he can renovate this shack into a summer vacation cottage and rent it out to earn some money. Since Bruno can’t think who might be interested in renting a cottage in PEI overlooking a swamp rather than the beach, he phones his Aunt Tillie (Danielle Nicole), the family genealogist, for some ideas.

Tillie thinks this is just another of Bruno’s harebrained schemes and doesn’t know how he’ll find anyone to trust him after he disgraced himself at a recent family wedding by falling onto the wedding cake. Nevertheless, after much prodding, deprecation and cajoling from Bruno, Tillie does come up with a couple of names who might be persuaded to take a “seaside” vacation in PEI. One is a woman named Phyllis (also Nicole), who married into the family and is generally regarded as a loose woman. The other is Simon (also Nicole), a would-be author, who might like time away to work on his novel.

Bruno phones both and receives positive responses and even firm bookings. He fixes up the shack into an attractive if rustic-looking cottage, although Tillie warns him that his skimping on the strengthening the structure to save a few pennies will come back to haunt him. All is well until Bruno sees Phyllis and Simon arriving at the same time, each claiming to have the prior reservation.

I have omitted a few key details in order not to give away the plot to those you may not have seen the play before. The present production is actually a revival of Port Stanley’s 2014 production of the play with the same cast and creative team. It was such a hit that the Festival decided to remount it.

This is definitely a play and a production that would repay a second viewing. The reason for this is that Elliott has written the play in such a clever way that it has two plots – one visible, one invisible. The visible plot is what we see on stage with all of Bruno’s travails in trying to get information from Tillie, his getting hassled by Tillie for his shoddy fixing up of the shack, his desperate attempts to to find summer tenants and the fall-out that occurs after his tenants arrive. All this is hugely amusing because we feel Bruno is barely keeping up with the events as they happen. The reason for this is the second, invisible plot. Bruno thinks of his Aunt Tillie as a meddling old bat who reads his letters and keeps reminding him that he is just like his no-good father whose motto was, “If at first you don’t succeed, lower your expectations”.

As we learn in passing through Bruno’s calls with Tillie, Tillie seems to be arranging things more to her liking rather than according to what Bruno tells her. By the end we discover that Tillie is hardly the confused old lady we took her for at first. In fact, she has had a master plan involving Bruno from the beginning the effects of which he is only aware by the play’s conclusion. If one were to see the play a second time, one could chart how this hidden plan of Tillie’s works itself out and how exactly Bruno’s fumbling about actually contributes to it.

Jamie Williams gives a masterful performance as Bruno, a fine comic creation in which various levels of awareness are constantly battling for dominance. Using a delightful Maritime accent Williams effortlessly captures the cocky side of Bruno who believes he is wise in the ways of the world and knows how to use them to his advantage. At the same time Williams lends Bruno a undercurrent of self-doubt which causes him to flare up so quickly when Tillie points out his failings.

Elliott gives Bruno a third, even deeper level of his personality, one highly unusual in a comedy. Elliott gives Bruno a long period of reflection in which he admits outright that he is a loser, that he as no fiends and that everyone he knows has done better in life than he has. He confesses to his Aunt Tillie that he doesn’t know why things never seem to work out for him. It is a surprising serious revelation that shows up all his earlier argumentation with Tillie as the sheer bravado it was. Williams delivers this passage with such a change of voice and mood that we think the whole comic nature of the play may change. But Bruno shakes off this rumination and gets back to his foolishness, although now we have a far greater appreciation of him as a fully rounded character than we did before.

Danielle Nicole is excellent in her three roles as Aunt Tillie, Phyllis and Simon. She gives Tillie a harsh, cackling voice and abrupt manner that helps support Bruno’s view of her as becoming demented. Yet Elliott also gives Tillie a long serious section, following the serious meditation of Bruno’s, where she gives Bruno advice on how to live. In a calmer, gentler voice than we’ve heard before she tell Bruno that the way to gain friends is not by trying to impress people but by helping them. A reputation for helping others will bring you friends and that number will grow with the more people you continue to help. I couldn’t help but think that in this passage Elliott was providing one the best descriptions of the Canadian personality I had heard, one that contrasts completely with the American notion that striving to be Number One is what counts the most.

As Phyllis, Nicole puts on an amusingly seductive tone of voice. It seems that Phyllis’s interest in visiting PEI is primarily to meet Bruno rather than to rent a retreat by the sea. For Simon, Nicole takes her voice as low as possible and gives him a pompous British accent.

One question in staging The Fixer-Upper is whether the voice on the other end of the phone should or should not be shown. On the one hand, showing the speaker, even by means of a spotlight through a scrim, would help convince the audience from the first that it was hearing a live performer and not a recording. It would also allow the speaker to use gestures and body-language to reinforce each character rather than relying on voice alone. On the other hand, not showing the people Bruno speaks with emphasizes his isolation and how easily messages given over the phone can be more easily misconstrued than those given in person.

Williams’s second co-star in the production is the shack itself. Designer Travis Hatt has created a structure which will undergo two transformations – one for the better, one for the worse. How Hatt has hidden the mechanisms for these future transformation is truly brilliant, each change enhanced with Karen Crichton’s atmospheric lighting.

Director Simon Joynes, Artistic Director of the Port Stanley Festival Theatre, has given the show absolutely the right pacing and made the phone conversations come off as completely natural. He slows down the pace for Bruno’s period of self-excoriation and Tillie’s gentle but wise response. These are the notes of seriousness that give the play its depth, as Joynes clearly is aware. It’s no wonder Elliott’s play has lasted so long. It combines laugh-out-loud comedy and a humorous battle of insults with an uplifting conclusion in which abrasiveness is replaced with understanding. This is a fine production of a fine play that people longing for a welcoming indoor theatre experience should travel to Port Stanley to see.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Jamie Williams as Bruno; Danielle Nicole as Aunt Tillie, Phyllis and Simon; Jamie Williams as Bruno. © 2021 Port Stanley Festival Theatre.

For tickets visit psft.ca.