I have nothing against Canadians save that their export in shows is always questionable, whether it is “To Grandmother’s House We Go,” “The Drowsy Chaperone, the one about the Canadian wartime flying ace whose name I have forgotten or now “Come From Away.”
The first trouble with “Come From Away” is the ungrammatical title. You can come from afar but not from away, which is a direction, not a place. The second, bigger trouble is that the show is a bore.
Shows about multiple characters of supposedly equal importance are always problematic, and even more so here, where almost all characters play multiple parts and it becomes hard to tell who they are at any given moment.
Yet another problem is the scenery, which, aside from a back wall and a few tree trunks, consists of twelve chairs, repeatedly rearranged for diverse locations. The authors, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a married couple, are no doubt proud of their device—just think how much cheaper are a dozen inexpensive chairs than anything more elaborate.
The musical is about what ensued when because of 9/11 no planes were temporarily allowed entry into the U.S. As a result, 38 airplanes from abroad where confined to the small town of Gander on Newfoundland, whose tiny population was redoubled by the stranded passengers. How to feed and lodge them?
What emerges is a show of tremendous good intentions, the proverbial pavement leading to Hell, so that I kept waiting for its gates to gape open and start devouring. No such thing occurred, so that the lack of Hell translated into lack of interest. Worst of all was the absence of even a single decent tune, attributable to the authors’ equal lack of expertise in yet another basic ingredient. This left me and my musical comedy professor wife a couple of very drowsy chaperones. In Canada, “drowsy” can apparently mean tipsy; here it means only somnolent.
But even the chairs could not help representing in each given arrangement one of several different locations, it all contributing ultimately to a no longer avoidable indifference. This said, no blame attaches to the valiant set designer Beowulf Borritt or the equally able non-Canadian director, Christopher Ashley. Nor could the dozen actors, Canadian or American, for all their competence, achieve much with material begging for oblivion.
Another disappointment is Sara Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.” Although having succeeded with several tries mostly well received by others, Ruhl’s plays worked only once for me. Pretentiousness does not make good bread and butter. What we have here is a quasi-serious comedy trying to be several things: an ambivalent bow to polymorphous sex, a display of the learning worthy of a poeta doctus, a conglomeration of philosophical apothegms, and speculations about whether one should slaughter—and perhaps even hunt down—the animals one eats.
The plot? Paul and his wife George (note the masculine short for Georgia) are a happily married fortyish couple, best friends with the only slightly older Jane and Michael. They all have unseen children, the latter couple an intermittently runaway high school problem daughter, Jenna. All is well enough until they become fascinated by the thought of a temp in Jane’s law office, Daborah,,self-declared member of a sexual threesome, who will casually slaughter a goat for dinner. This young woman lives with David and Freddie, and sleeps with both. That occupies the conversation of the two couples for a whole scene, at the end of which they decide to invite the trio for New Year’s Eve supper.
In the next scene, Jane and Michael are duly hosting that supper for Dah-vid, as his foreign origin has him pronounce his name, the childlike Freddie, and the lovely temp now named Pip. They all have a whale of a good time, first discussing and finally indulging in an orgy for seven. All sorts of shenanigans prevail, involving such things as karaoke singing, verse recitation, and Paul’s revelation that he once slaughtered a chicken and is now ready to do a duck.
In the next scene, Pip, presently under yet another name, is out hunting with George in the wilds of New Jersey. Bow and arrows somehow bring the women closer than ever, disrupted only by George’s accidentally shooting a dog she mistakes for a deer. Moreover, unlicensed for hunting, the women are briefly imprisoned (no bail?), but Pip vanishes, changed, as George speculates, into a bird.
Lastly, except for David and Freddie searching for the vanished Pip, with even George briefly running after them, pursued in turn by Paul, things are looking up, and even the escape-prone Jenna is back home reconciled. George delivers a closing monologue, exclaiming, “Oh my God, we’re all straining so hard for transcendence, and there it was all along.”
Herewith some specimens of how Ms. Ruhl (Lady of Misrule?) writes, beyond her invention of arcane words like flexitarian, polyamory, and compersive, and her word games such as “something feral, smelling slightly of fur.”
“People judge you, you know, even in Portland.” [Wit.] “Prairie vole” as distinct from ordinary vole. [Erudition.] “In fact, it might be [Pip’s] ordinary relationship with her fearless sensuality, which does not require deodorant or lipstick, that makes everyone immediately think about sex. She is unvarnished and unashamed.” [Phrase-making.] Throwing “garbage into garbage—it’s like our whole culture.” [Sociology.] “I feel a little foggy, like a boat. Maybe we could all go kayaking.” [Prose poetry.] Stage direction: “They kiss, it’s about forgiveness and love.” [Psychology.]
“ Maybe we should not all be fucking each other all the time. But maybe we could form like a band, or something” [Humor.] Stage direction, with reference to Jenna’s violin playing: “More and more violins are playing [Bach of course] until it feels as though 300 children were playing in one church.” [ Secular piety.]
There is good direction by Rdbecca Teichman, interestingly sleak scenery by David Zinn, apt costumes from the dependable Susan Hilferty, and good acting from the cast. We get a manly Paul from Omar Metwally, a tender George from Marisa Tomei, a sympathetic Jane from Robin Weigert, and a handsome Pip from Lena Hall. That a supposedly white European immigrant, David, is played by a manifestly American black actor, Austin Smith, is only slightly jarring. Todd Almond contributed discreet music.
“Linda” is a silly play by Penelope Skinner with a superb performance in the title role by Janie Dee, who smartly turns dross into gold. I hesitate to pronounce a performance as redeeming an entire dreary play, but this one actually does. Ms. Dee was here 17 years ago in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Comic Potential,”a much better part in a far superior play, but regrettably nothing else until now.
My comment about her performance in the Ayckbourn concluded, “It leaves one pleasurably gasping. I am not sure that I have ever seen its equal, but I am quite certain I have never seen, nor ever will see, its superior.” And here she finally is in a less good role in a much lesser play, but being no less extraordinary. All I can say is hallelujah.