Seventeen to seventy in seventy minutes

publicity photo for Seventeen

(Photo of Stephen Aberle and Suzanne Ristic by Javier Sotres)

As is so often the case, the acting is better than the writing.

Seventeen is about a group of friends (mostly), who have gathered in a playground to celebrate their last day of high school by getting hammered. As determined by Seventeen’s playwright Matthew Whittet, the teenagers in this show are all played by senior actors.

The potential pitfalls of this set-up are, of course, stereotyping and overacting. On opening night of Western Gold Theatre’s production, which was directed by Michael Fera, the first scene made me fear the worst: there was a lot of boisterous enthusiasm.

But, for the most part, the fault isn’t with the performers. The set-up, with its repeated shouts of “Beer!” begs for this kind of delivery.

I’m going to talk a bit more about problems with the script, then I’ll get into the strengths of the production.

Seventeen is of the in-vino-veritas school of playwriting. In this and in other ways, Whittet isn’t subtle with his narrative and thematic triggers. “What are you going to miss most?” one character asks. Somebody else poses the question, “What’s your biggest regret?” And, of course, they have to play Truth or Dare. “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

There are a couple of revelations. Mike, who’s a handsome, swaggering bully, reads out the letter that his best friend Tom wrote to himself when he was seven. This is presented as a huge betrayal, but the letter is pretty harmless. And, if you’re completely surprised when Mike’s big secret is revealed, you haven’t been paying attention. (By the way, that revelation is all shock value with no follow-up.)

Mike’s little sister Lizzie suffers the most from stereotyped characterization. She’s fourteen, but she says ridiculously childish things, including “I’m not Lizzie. I’m a spy.” Unsurprisingly, Eileen Barrett, who played Lizzie on opening night — this production uses a rotating ensemble cast — behaves like she’s in bad children’s theatre when she’s delivering this material. When she’s got more to work with — and she does get more to work with — she settles down.

Most of the actors I saw got into in a very nice groove. In many ways, Tom is the fulcrum of this piece and Stephen Aberle keeps his portrait of this honest, vulnerable guy affectingly unadorned and grounded. I also particularly appreciated Allan Zinyk’s turn as Ronnie, an outcast who is barely tolerated by the group; Zinyk not only gives us full access to the Ronnie’s melancholy, he also fully explores the humour of the character’s eccentricity. And I had a good time with Suzanne Ristic’s smart, guarded Emilia.

Still, the conventions of Seventeen are so arch that I had a hard time investing in it. More than once during its ninety-minute playing time, I checked my watch.

SEVENTEEN By Matthew Whittet. Directed by Michael Fera. A Western Gold Theatre production at the PAL Theatre on November 5. Running until November 20. Tickets and information

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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