Stage Door Review
The Master Plan
Saturday, September 23, 2023
by Michael Healey, directed by Chris Abraham
Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto
September 13-October 19, 2023
Eric Schmidt: “Just give us a city and put us in charge”
There’s something very Canadian about a play devoted to failure rather than success. Michael Healey’s latest play is an adaptation of the book Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy by The Globe and Mail journalist Josh O’Kane. The play is a satire about the failure of a plan to build a smart city in Toronto because of the clash between Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google, and Waterfront Toronto, the organization that invited it to develop a proposal for Toronto’s formerly industrial lakeside land. Healey turns the subject into a massive exposé of hubris and folly on both sides. The play receives a brilliant production from director Chris Abraham and is acted by a top-notch cast at the height of their powers.
To understand the show you don’t need to know anything about the debacle known as Sidewalk Toronto that played out from its inception in 2017 to its cancellation in May 2020. Healey feeds us mountains of information about the issues, even tracing aspects of the situation back to the founding of Toronto (then called York) by settlers in 1793. Healey uses a Tree (Peter Fernandes) as his primary narrator to guide us through the story, although all the other six cast members also pitch in as narrators.
In brief, Waterfront Toronto was established by the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government in 2001 to oversee and lead the renewal of the city’s waterfront. Waterfront (for short) had at its disposal Quayside, 12 acres of lakeshore land, to create a model that could be used for the entire 100 acres of Toronto Port lands, supposedly the only major undeveloped urban lakeshore in North America. Waterfront chose to partner with Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google, to create the continent’s first “smart” city. Sensors would monitor every aspect of the inhabitants’ lives and the data would be used to improve the inhabitants’ physical environment since virtually every aspect of the development could be endlessly reconfigured.
When the project was announced in 2017, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) joked that “We started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge”. Soon Schmidt’s joke was not viewed as a joke. With Google’s reputation for selling user data, red flags went up among the populace in Toronto that Google was creating a mini surveillance state. Google’s promise not to sell data from Quayside convinced no one and its tendency to forget that only the 12 acres of Quayside were to be developed, not the entire Port Lands, did not help matters.
With great disingenuousness, a statement appears at the start of both Acts 1 and 2 that what we are seeing is fiction. Yet, all the characters but one amalgam and a tree use the real names of the people involved. Besides that, Healey unloads huge amounts of factual material on us. First, he seems to be trying to convince us in excruciating detail that this “fiction” is real. Second, he seems to think the ironies inherent in the situation are so obvious that merely stating the facts is enough to make his point.
We really don’t need to know the entire corporate history of Google or Alphabet to understand the Waterfront-Sidewalk debacle. Nor do we really need to know the entire history of Toronto’s waterfront or who precisely resigned from the Waterfront board when and what effect it had. Given that Healey claims the play is “fiction”, excising all this superfluous detail would only make the story stronger and tighter.
Indeed, Healey’s obsession with factual detail nearly causes him to neglect interpersonal conflict which is usually the source of drama. Act 1 does feel like it is more narrated than acted, but in Act 2 Healey does create a number fine dramatic scenes. One of the best is the scene between Ben Carlson as the CEO of Waterfront and Yanna McIntosh as the Board Chair of Waterfront who asks the CEO to resign simply so that the Board looks like it is doing something about the negative stories that have come out about the Waterfront-Sidewalk collaboration. Neither character wants to do what they are doing, but both know something must be seen to be done even if it ultimately has no effect.
The action is very much like that of an absurdist comedy in that the two sides have the same conversation multiple times without ever coming to a resolution. Waterfront says, “We only have twelve acres under our jurisdiction”. Sidewalk says, “We can’t do what we want with only twelve acres”. Waterfront says, “We only have twelve acres under our jurisdiction”. Sidewalk says, “Can’t you get us more?” Waterfront says, “No”. And so is continues with variations for the whole play. A parallel sequence is Waterfront telling Sidewalk not to make any statements or have meetings with others about the plan without Waterfront being present. Sidewalk proceeds to do both. Waterfront chides them. The scenario repeats.
Given the play’s factual overload and inherently repetitive nature, the show’s success is heavily dependent on its incisive direction, acting and design. Here it triumphs beyond all expectation. Abraham has managed to have his cast speak Healey’s detail-heavy text with naturalness and passion. This is absolutely vital if we are to care about the abstruse aspects of a building project that never happened.
The cast works as an ensemble and each plays multiple roles, but each actor particularly shines in certain roles. Peter Fernandes plays the Tree, a Norway pine, who is the show’s principal narrator. The Tree has the loftiest overview of the situation of any of the characters, and Fernandes lends it a genial personality, as if the Tree had seen innumerable displays of human folly throughout its long life. Fernandes’ Tree does not comment on the action except to provide further details, the notion being, as per Healey’s method, that one need only recite the facts for the project's flaws to be apparent.
Mike Shara plays Dan Doctoroff and appears to do the least amount of doubling. His Doctoroff is an exquisite portrait of American self-satisfaction and disregard for anything that inhibits his agenda. For Doctoroff, rules, protocols and agreements exist only to be broken if breaking them will give him and his company greater power and profit. Neither Healey nor Shara presents Doctoroff as a villain as much as a capitalist whose fundamental ethos clashes with that of Canadians who actually believe that rules, protocols and agreements have meaning. Shara is great at giveng Doctoroff the outward appearance of a buffoon and blowhard, while simultaneously emphasizing his steely intractability.
As Will Fleissig, the CEO for Waterfront, Ben Carlson successfully makes Fleissig Doctoroff’s opposite number in every possible way. Where Doctoroff is brash, ignores restrictions, mangles words and throws tantrums, Fleissig is polite, rule-bound, articulate and even-tempered. Carlson shows that though Fleissig can barely stand Doctoroff, he can, albeit with gradually increasing effort, contain himself.
Tara Nicodemo and Philippa Domville are Kristina Verner and Meg Davis, who are part of Fleissig’s team. While the two are similarly socked by Doctoroff’s actions, Nicodemo and Domville have them react in contrasting ways. Nicodemo has Verner erupt in anger at every one of Doctoroff’s infractions, whereas Domville has Davis react more like Fleissig in bottling up her anger. This trait in Davis leads to what may be the greatest scene in the play when Verner and Davis hear a tape of one of Doctoroff’s speeches in which he breaks every promise he had made to Waterfront. Davis finally snaps and unleashes her rage and disgust in a sequence of destructive actions that is absolutely hilarious in its extravagance. Domville so often plays proper, repressed women, it is a joy to see her let go with such extraordinary exuberance.
Christopher Allen plays a character called Cam Malagaam, who, unlike the previous characters is not a real person but an amalgam (his name is an anagram of “a amalgam”) of all the people who were Sidewalk Labs designers. Healey set him up as angelic side of Sidewalk to counter Doctoroff as its demonic side. Allen depicts Malagaam as earnest, enthusiastic and above all idealistic, whereas a Doctoroff is wily, calculating and cynical. Malagaam takes the trouble to get to know Toronto and looks for ways that the Quayside product could benefit the city. Yet, Allen also captures the naïve side of Malagaam. Healey has Malagaam deliver a long speech explaining some of the virtues of a city that can redesign itself so that streets can become sidewalks and vice versa. The ideas that Malagaam spouts are ludicrous, but Allen delivers the speech with the fervour of a true believer.
Yanna McIntosh plays the largest number of roles but her principal role is that of Helen Burstyn, the Board Chair of Waterfront, whom she makes forthright, practical and unyielding. Her second largest role, however, is much more fun and that is her humorous portrayal of Toronto Mayor John Tory as an awkward dunce who is rapidly but not very successfully trying to learn French.
Joshua Quinlan’s set is quite remarkable. Virtually all the action takes place in various boardrooms and Quinlan has made the shape of the focal boardroom table the same shape as the Quayside site. The main playing area is sunken and surrounded by a raised floor with a honeycomb pattern. As we discover from Malagaam’s speech, the convertible streets and sidewalks of the Quayside development will be made up of hexagonal modules that can be removed for sub-surface repairs.
The show is staged in the round and, rather like an old-fashioned boxing ring, Quinlan has hung a four-sided video display above the boardroom area. Video designer Amelia Scott has rigged the display sometimes to show live-feeds of the audience which reinforces the theme of the inescapability of surveillance in Sidewalk’s planned city. The video, however, is mostly used to illustrate points that the narrators make. There is a running chronological line and graphics to show us the step-by-step history of the formation and expansion of Google and of the history of Toronto and the Port Lands. This is all slickly and impressively accomplished even though you often feel that the play has turned into an illustrated lecture rather than a play. You also sometimes have to remind yourself not to get too caught up in the video displays and turn your eyes back to the actors on stage.
There has likely never been a play written about Toronto as a city that is so accurate in capturing the character of Torontonians. Waterfront Toronto’s choice of Google’s Sidewalk Labs as a potential partner may have been approved by all levels of governments, but that choice is an all-too-typical Canadian, especially Torontonian, trait – the desire of fame by association. Google had fame, money and power. How exciting for Toronto to have something to do with it. How pathetic for Toronto willingly to want to be its lab rat. Just like the horrid phrases “Hollywood North” or “Broadway North” that Toronto has used, somehow Toronto’s worth can only be measured by comparing itself to our enormous neighbour to the south. Does Toronto actually want to be another US colony?
Healey also shows that the choice of such a company, one already vilified for data mining, was extraordinarily naïve. Google may have been shiny, but how could its shininess have blinded Waterfront Toronto to the obvious objections such a choice would bring? That Waterfront did not drop Sidewalk after its repeated infractions of agreements reveals an all-too-typical human failing of unwillingness to admit a mistake.
The useful German word Schadenfreude means pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune. Some have recently noted that there is also such a thing as Selbst-Schadenfreude, or pleasure felt by one’s own misfortune. In The Master Plan, Healey combines both – the first, directed towards the failure of the Americans, the second, a Canadian specialty, directed towards the failure of the Canadians. When both sides of this perverse pleasure are showcased in such a perfect production as Abraham’s, the result is irresistible.
Photo: Ben Carlson, Mike Shara and Philippa Domville; Peter Fenandes as Tree; Mike Shara as Dan Doctoroff; Philippa Domville, Ben Carlson, Mike Shara, Christopher Allen and Tara Nicodemo; Mike Shara as Dan Doctoroff. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets visit: www.crowstheatre.com.