One of the hallmarks of Des McAnuff’s tenure as Artistic Director has been his admirable commitment to plays by living Canadian playwrights, from one-man shows like this year’s Hirsch or last year’s revival of Shakespeare’s Will, to full-fledged musicals like this year’s Wanderlust or 2010’s King of Thieves. The critical sweet spot has often been somewhere in between these extremes, with last year’s The Little Years and 2010’s For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again garnering the top critical laurels in the category.
This year, that middle zone is occupied by The Best Brothers, a two-hander written by and starring Daniel MacIvor, receiving its world premier at Stratford’s Studio Theatre. It bears comparison to both For The Pleasure and The Little Years. Like the former, the play is about a son losing his mother – in this case, two brothers, surnamed “Best,” whose mother, “Bunny” has, at the opening of the play, just been crushed by an obese drag queen who fell off her float in a gay pride parade. And both are structured as memory plays, the dead mother conjured up by the living son(s). Like the latter, a key character never appears onstage – not the dead mother; she shows up plenty, played by each of the sons in (drag) turn, but her dog, Enzo, late love of her life and, we learn about halfway through, responsible for her death (the drag queen lost her balance waving at Enzo). And both are about the pain of the less-favored child – Hamilton Best (MacIvor), though the older and more accomplished of the brothers, nurses a lifelong resentment at what he sees as blatant favoritism by his mother toward his younger brother, Kyle (John Beale). But The Best Brothers lacks the scope and profundity of those other plays, in large part because it is so simultaneously condescending towards and gentle with its protagonist.
The story is a simple one. Bunny having died, tragicomically, her sons need to arrange a funeral on the one hand and for the disposition of her dog on the other. The funeral turns into a farce, with Hamilton first upstaged and then enraged by his brother’s intrusions into the decorous send-off he had orchestrated. Enzo wreaks similar havoc in Hamilton’s personal life, first tearing up his brand-new $200,000 kitchen, which precipitates the termination of his marriage. When he has suffered enough from his attempts to maintain some semblance of order in the wake of his mother’s humiliating death, we get a drip-drip of revelations from his apparently hapless brother: their mother was already dying (of cancer) and so was really spared suffering by her sudden death rather than having been cut off before her time (this explains Kyle’s rather blase attitude toward her death when he first learns of it); she withheld this information from Hamilton because she feared he couldn’t handle it; and it was her idea that Hamilton inherit Enzo. By the end of the play, Hamilton has made his peace with his true position in the family: far from being the omnicompetent one, it’s Kyle who has his stuff together, practically and emotionally, and Hamilton who needs to learn – from Enzo, agent of chaos – how to love without controlling.
All of which is fine, and an unobjectionable if somewhat anodyne message. But somebody once said: if you want to send a message, go to Western Union. I have a problem with plays that single out one character to “learn” something, and arrange the rest of the characters to be his teachers. And that’s very much what happens here. Kyle not only doesn’t have an arc, he doesn’t really participate in the drama at all. Nothing Hamilton says can get to him, and whatever he feels about the passing of his mother, he goes through it offstage and never really lets us in on what it is. That’s plausible, of course, but it makes him a less-interesting character, good only for one-liners and to provoke emotional reactions in his brother.
Ditto in spades for Bunny, who speaks to us from beyond the grave through her sons, telling the story of how she came to acquire Enzo. Except that she never really lets us in, never gives us a glimpse of true interiority. Her loneliness and need for something to love is asserted, not demonstrated; most surprisingly, she says next to nothing about her relationship with her two sons, and does nothing to provide an additional perspective on them beyond what we get from their own scenes. Instead, she performs, and unfortunately she isn’t as charming a performer as she thinks.
The only character to show any depth of feeling – much of it expressed as hostility, yes, but at least it is feeling – is Hamilton. The whole play, he’s been surrounded by people who withhold affection from him – he complains about this characteristic in his mother, but it’s equally evident from his brother, and his off-stage wife leaves their marriage on a note of exceptional coldness. And I’m supposed to believe that he’s the one who needs to learn how to love, and that these people, and their psychotic pooch, are the ones to teach him.
Color me skeptical. What they call love looks an awful lot to me like detachment – amused detachment, yes, but detachment nonetheless. And from where I sit, a love so limited shouldn’t happen to a dog.