At Jericho Arts Centre until Dec. 4 Tickets: 604.224.8007 unitedplayers.com
United Players has snuck a seasonal play in just before the jingle bells start ringing, the white stuff starts flying and the usual Christmas fare kicks in.
It's New Year's Eve in Michael Wynne's The Priory-which premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2009-and writer Kate has rented a decommissioned monastery somewhere in the wilds of England to host a party for a small group of friends. The opening scene sets up expectations of something very Agatha Christie: thunder booming, tree branches scraping the stained glass windows, a hooded figure lurking outside the heavy oak doors while, inside, a terrified Kate wields a crowbar as she awaits her guests.
But the threat to the festivities isn't an axe-murderer out for a stroll in the dark. Christie quickly gives way to something more along the lines of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn as the guests arrive: Daniel (James Elston), a gay architect who's going to do the cooking; Ben (Gordon Myren), a travel writer and his fiancée, beautician Laura (Genevieve Fleming) whom he has just met-and proposed to-the day before; Carl (Gui Fontanezzi), a formerly successful actor now lucky to get coffee commercials; and Carl's bitchy, offspring-obsessed wife Rebecca (Caitlin Clugston), an awardwinning BBC producer. Adam (Christopher Cook), whom Daniel has been "dating" on the Internet, also turns up, uninvited. Take away the telly, Internet and mobile phone reception and watch these thirtysomethings marinate in alcohol, cocaine and Valium.
Kevin Bennett directed the stunningly original Hamlet at Havana Theatre just a year ago, and it seems a pity to waste such fresh talent on what isn't much more than a comedy that goes south taking with it a bland idea: maybe success isn't all it's cracked up to be. Let's all set our sights lower; dream small. It's less painful.
But thanks to Bennett's excellent cast and his fine direction, The Priory is-from moment to moment-entertaining. The dialogue is crisp and the social commentary witty. A real highlight is Studio 58 grad Fleming who makes Laura so bruised and battered a character that you flinch whenever another rebuff comes her way. She starts off all flaky, overboard and gushing, "I just love the gays," as she fawns all over Daniel. But she soon comes undone. Fleming is the wounded creature at the heart of this production and it's a terrific performance.
Balancing the fragility of Laura is Clugston's Rebecca, who makes Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf's Martha look downright well modulated and refined. Clugston brays, she clomps around in high heels, and when she hollers "Stay!," Kate-like a dog getting a bawling out-does. And when Rebecca yanks Carl's metaphorical chain, he heels.
As Kate, Joy Castro carries the weight of the play, and while she does a creditable job of it-even affecting an English accent-Kate is just not that interesting a character. She writes-but not well enough to find a publisher for her second book-and she's having an affair with a married man. And her biological clock is ticking. New and fresh? Not so much.
Like the play, Christopher David Gauthier's set is realistic: stained glass windows, functional furniture, and real cake on the plates. With a "dress-up" chest as part of the priory rental, costume designer Stephanie Kong gets creative as the guests, drunk and stoned, dip into the chest's contents and emerge in drag. Laura, who has already been changing her outfit constantly, has a heyday layering shawls and scarves, beads and feather boas. It would be hilarious if it weren't so sad.
Wynne's play is engaging, but overall, it's a play you think you might have seen before. email@example.com