BWW Review: Endearing Gay Rom-Com THE CANADIANS Sails Into OC's South Coast Repertory
When it comes to generic, similarly-plotted romantic comedies---and I'm talking about the kinds that flood the Hallmark Channel or the Lifetime network during this time of year---there seems to be a very noticeable pattern that emerges.
First, we typically witness a no-nonsense, workaholic girl and a brooding, playfully childish boy have an abruptly-staged meet-cute, followed by an hour in the middle of the movie where they both pretend that they don't really like each other but share banter that suggests otherwise.
Soon they see the error of their ways, and fall madly for each other. Then boom!... some kind of complication is introduced that potentially dooms their match. But, as expected, their, uh, too-strong feelings triumph through the complications anyway. The movie usually concludes itself with a cutesy and/or passionate kiss (or more, depending on the network), the adoration of the couple's friends and family, then, finally at last, a longing, shared smile as they whisk themselves away into the happily-ever-after sunset.
For playwright Adam Bock's endearing new stage comedy THE CANADIANS---now having its infectiously giddy World Premiere production at Orange County's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through October 20, 2019---the typical blueprint for the usual girl-meets-boy trope gets a fresh, heady spin and an inspired recast that elevates it higher that your average rom com.
Don't get me wrong... the fresh spin I speak of isn't merely the fact that the play's main protagonist is a gay man (that kind of rom com is hardly new nor revolutionary). Rather, THE CANADIANS---directed with TV-like sitcom zeal by Jaime Castañeda---truly feels like a fresh, original story, even though much of the sequences and characters that shape the events of this strikingly entertaining stage play all feel comfortably familiar.
Bock does this by throwing everything typical and cliché and expected in front of you, but then twists enough certain aspects---from character behaviors to narrative devices---in a way that subverts predictions and expectations. Just when you think the play is headed one way, it suddenly takes subtle course corrections that provide the audience something pleasantly different or surprising, but that still completely and totally makes sense for the characters and the story.
The resulting presentation---its first fully-staged production since its many readings and workshops as a commissioned piece by SCR---is one of the most enjoyable, sweetly heartwarming, and smile-inducing comedies I have seen on this stage. Even better, THE CANADIANS seems to be earning praise from a wide variety of audience members present during the recent performance I attended, which I assume---from visual observation alone---had people of various ages, genders, orientations, socio-economic brackets, moral thresholds, and, perhaps, even geopolitical views.
In a clever---but, admittedly, way too long---series of initial misdirections, THE CANADIANS, particularly with its rather broadly generic title, lulls the audience into thinking the play is little more than a slice-of-life broad comedy about a super-nice, super-smart, but almost clinically timid young man named Gordy (played by the adorkably handsome Kyle T. Hester), who must quietly navigate life "stuck" in the thickly snow-covered tiny rural border town of Port Alison in Manitoba, Canada---where his personal tastes and interests just don't square well with his surrounding environment.
When we first meet Gordy, he is covered head-to-toe in thick layers (well, it is Winter in Canada), where he is secretly enjoying Opera music through his headphones as the snow blankets him from above.
Suddenly his similarly-outfitted über-macho brothers show up, played with exaggerated stereotypical Canadian-ness by Corey Brill and Linda Gehringer (the latter in gender-bent drag). Quickly, Gordy switches the music to heavy metal, probably to avoid being mocked by them. They proceed to egg him on about his required attendance at the hockey game where he is apparently much needed. Gordy promises to come, though we can tell from his not so subtle tone that it's probably just an exasperated response to quell his loud, boisterously expressive brothers' insistent nagging.
The scene then transitions over to show Gordy painstakingly shoveling the snow that has piled up outside the city's Town Hall (the task goes on for so long it becomes almost fascinating to observe). In yet another elongated misdirection, Bock sets the audience up into thinking they're about to watch the real meat of the play: a hilarious workplace comedy, where Gordy will often be shown as the bemused "straight man" observer of the everyday histrionics and eccentricities of his more outlandish co-workers at the Mayor's office.
Gordy works directly under the city's friendly Mayor Claudette (Gehringer, again, inher sole female role), who seems to rely on him to be her right-hand man for all things, including being the voice of reason at the office, and to be the helpful, occasional "strong man" to do manual tasks like (as we saw earlier) clearing the town hall's snow-covered paths or to act as mediator between bickering co-workers. At the same time, the Mayor seems to care a lot about Gordy like he's her own son, engaging him in conversations in the hopes that he would allow himself to open up a bit more to others.
While he seems mostly amused by---and understandably cautious with---all the colorful people at work, Gordy also has a genuinely amiable close friendship with fellow nice/normal dude Brendan (Daniel Chung), the only other young(ish) man in the office. When the Mayor inquires about the news that Brendan's uncle has been hospitalized, it is Gordy whom she asks first about the news and to inquire about Brendan's emotional state.
The play posits pretty clearly that shy young Gordy, perhaps, Is just too "special" and maybe too worldly to be stuck in such a podunk town, where hockey is the ultimate religion and the hot goss is whether or not his two viciously bickering co-workers are actually just deeply in denial about their mutual sexual attraction toward one another. But at the same time, Gordy---at just 23 years old---seems fairly content with his uneventful, even-keeled life. Although he probably yearns for more, he's not openly complaining about a whole lotta things, either.
Well, complaining doesn't seem to fit his character, actually (that is, until later). Complaining might just be too expressive an activity that could inadvertently reveal an aspect Gordy doesn't want to reveal outright: that he's gay.
But, as we know in the theater, life has a way of jolting the status quo.
With his uncle stuck in the hospital for an undetermined amount of time, Brendan is given a pair of tickets to the gay cruise that his uncle and his uncle's partner have already pre-paid to go on, but are, of course, now unable to enjoy. Unsurprisingly and with palpable enthusiasm, Brendan (who, oh yeah, is gay, too!) asks Gordy to be his plus one on this once-in-a-lifetime, all-inclusive vacation to the Caribbean---far, far away from the frigid temps of their cold Canadian town.
Gordy, as expected, refuses at first, hesitant about the implications of going on such a trip with Brendan, not to mention having to leave his comfort zone. But luckily for the audience---who have now been conditioned to start liking and caring for the welfare of this kind, deserving young man---Gordy changes his mind, with even a sparkle in his eye when he says yes to Brendan.
Once again, Bock steers THE CANADIANS into another out-there direction, but this one (thankfully) holds steady as the true narrative setting of the play, where it finally gets to take off from its initial, less interesting misdirections. The banal talk of cold fronts and hockey pucks are traded in for the ribald talk of thongs, illicit trysts, and special massages. For our sake, though, the hilarity and the heart of the play are doled out in equally generous doses from here on in, making the play as emotionally riveting as it is funny AF.
Once our boys have made it onto the boat, the play's remaining trajectory becomes highly anticipated. We witness the previously guarded and timid Gordy slowly unraveling the multiple layers he has accumulated as a shield for his inner self---to reveal a vulnerability that we can all relate to regardless of one's race, gender, sexual orientation, or personal beliefs.
We also discover---with the help of intuitive new cruise friends, older and wiser gay couple Wally (the terrific Corey Dorris) and Ollie (Gehringer, again in male drag)---that Gordy has an apparently unrequited crush on Brendan---but, uh, is it really unrequited?
Naturally, Gordy doesn't want to let on that he likes his best friend, so for most of the trip, he deflects (sacrifices?) his own personal feelings by instead encouraging the more adventurous Brendan to give in to his lust for the heavily-accented British hottie in a thong named Andy---well, actually, it's "Ahhhn-dehhhhh" as Gordy mockingly pronounces it, bathed in obvious jealousy (Andy is played with brilliant dude-ness by Brill, in one of his many roles in the play).
For his part, Brendan---who genuinely cares about his friend and promised to hang out a lot for the duration of the trip---keeps asking Gordy to join him in the frivolity, but Gordy keeps refusing and seems annoyed by the invites. Gordy would rather suffer silently and read his book than to watch his crush get all cozy with another guy that Gordy probably feels is "better" at this whole gay thing than he is.
To no one's surprise, Gordy timidly admits to a very sympathetic Oliver (touchingly performed by Gehringer without a hint of parody or mockery) that the gay bacchanal bursting all around them makes him uncomfortable. This theme of feeling like an outsider in one's own community is indeed repeated throughout the play---first as Gordy tries to find connections with his brothers, with his co-workers, and now here surrounded by a queer community boastfully celebrating.
Oliver, however, sees all this unabashed gaiety as nothing more than people finally getting to express their true selves in a safe space---something Gordy, perhaps, should probably take part in himself.
Gordy heeds his advice. And so, while his heart might be hurting, along the way, we also get to see Gordy shed some inhibitions at the cruise, allowing truths to come out that were previously held back. Thanks to his friendship with seasoned cruise-goers Oliver and Wally, Gordy has found a couple of gay Yodas willing to school him in the art of loosening up a bit more than he has allowed himself to be. With their mentorship, the audience can finally see the happiness that bursts out of Gordy in just the simple act of being himself for the first time in probably ever.
The quiet guy shoveling mounds of snow back in Port Alison is almost unrecognizable---and we all cheer for him in his newfound glee.
So, okay. We get it. The first half of this intermission-less play is to establish Gordy as the, um, "straight man," the quiet, blandly-tempered every-guy-next-door who is a little awkward but is extremely kind and generously agreeable. He's a great listener and an ardent observer rather than a person who willingly talks about the details of his own life---a total contrast to the outwardly expressive people around him.
Much time is inexplicably first spent on periphery characters that populate city hall, particularly a vapid office gal named Trish (albeit, hilariously played in drag by Brill), whose flirtation with Gordy is amusingly cringeworthy. In hindsight, all of it is meant to provide Gordy with the necessary contrast from where he starts and where he ends up by the end of the play. The journey, in the grand scheme of things, makes THE CANADIANS incredibly satisfying---with the rom-com ending I won't spoil but can promise is worth waiting for.
Specifically voiced yet wholly universal, THE CANADIANS is, at its core, a play about finding where one belongs, without having to squelch your true self. It's about being comfortable in your own skin and not feeling necessarily apologetic to those that may find something unfairly objectionable about your truth. Enriched with wit and poignant sincerity, the play is a winning comedy with heart.
A modern play with contemporary accouterments, this world premiere production is impressive in its minimalist but highly innovative approach, allowing the awesome cast to be the deserved main attractions of the play. Lauren Helpern's encroaching white wall set design that frame the stage serves as a useful blank canvas for Yee Fun Nam's gorgeous, painting-like projections (the back wall occasionally opens up to reveal a clever annex to the set, too). Josh Epstein's lighting effectively adorns the mood of each vignette while Cricket S. Myer's soundscapes plop the audience in the middle of action. Meanwhile, Denitsa Bliznakova's costume work is a playful interplay between layered, cold weather frocks to summer resort wear and, yes, even fabulously simple drag.
The enjoyable five-person cast is uniformly excellent. Hester is superb as Gordy, a role sincerely performed with equal doses of nerdy cuteness and touching vulnerability, deservedly earning the audience's adoration. Brill, whose past work at SCR mostly leans serious, is given the chance to be truly silly here, and does a great job with each of his distinct roles. Similarly, Dorris provides memorable turns for each of his multiple roles, particularly Wally, the outwardly expressive older gay man whose makeover for Gordy is a giddy pleasure to watch. Chung is a convincing object of affection for Gordy. And, finally, Gehringer is a revelation in her multiple roles... convincingly maternal as Mayor Claudette, and thoughtfully paternal as Oliver, Gordy's newly minted gay mentor. Her monologue explaining her view on celebratory, overtly expressive gay men is stunning.
My only criticism of THE CANADIANS is confined to the play's initial set-up---specifically, the amount of time it spends setting up the situation that kickstarts Gordy's transformation. While I don't particularly mind the multiple misdirections Bock employs, the play doesn't really get going until Gordy says yes to the cruise with his crush---but I get it... the beginning of the play, filed with broad comedic moments meant to show what Gordy has to deal with daily, is meant to provide ample contrast to the events in the play's latter half that instigates Gordy's profound and very visible character growth. I bet, though, that the play becomes even more satisfying in multiple views, rendering these initial misdirections as merely kooky vignettes filled with humorous moments.
Sweet and endearing without having to be too sanitized for a mainstream audience, THE CANADIANS, overall, is simply a winning romantic comedy that both straight and queer audiences can equally cheer for.
One of my favorite moments in the play happens towards the end of the play, where a newly returned Gordy---freshly back from his eye-opening, life-changing trip aboard a gay cruise---recounts everything he loved about the trip to his rapt co-workers. Ordinarily, hearing the endless minutia of someone else's fabulous vacation is not everybody's idea of a great conversation, but in this case, hearing the palpable enthusiasm in Gordy's recollection of his adventure represents everything to be enjoyed about this play: that In being yourself, others can share in your expressed joy.
Don't be surprised if even you shed a tear or two for its touching, absolutely satisfying climax (I did).
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Photos by Jordan Kubat for South Coast Repertory.
South Coast Repertory presents THE CANADIANS by Adam Bock. Directed by Jaime Castañeda. Performances continue at South Coast Repertory through October 20, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.