There are a whole lot of skilled artists at work here and there are a couple of good laughs in the script. Mostly, though, David French’s Jitters is a waste of precious theatre time.
Jitters is a backstage comedy, a show about putting on a show. In it, a Toronto company rehearses a new script called The Care and Treatment of Roses, goes through opening night, and deals with the aftermath of reviews.
In the play proper, Jessica Logan is a Canadian actor who has had some success on Broadway. She wants to get back to the Great White Way and, based on her presence in The Care and Treatment of Roses, a Broadway producer has been enticed to attend the premiere. All of this terrifies Jessica’s co-star Patrick Flanagan, who fears that, if the show does go to New York, he will be exposed as the minor talent he thinks he is. Of course, because they are at one another’s throats in real life, Jessica and Patrick play lovers in the play they’re rehearsing.
French wrote Jitters in 1979 and it hasn’t aged well. Canada’s historical artistic inferiority complex is one of the major drivers of the script: success at home means little; success on Broadway means everything. In 2018, it’s still great when Canadian talent is celebrated internationally, including in New York and London, but Canadian theatre has grown up: its need for outside validation has lessened considerably and that takes a good deal of the spin out of Jitters.
There isn’t much left. In the best gag in the script, the stage manager misses a doorbell sound cue then throws it in later: in the theatre, that kind of concrete mess-up exposes the fragility of the whole exercise and is often very funny, as it is here. Most of the verbal jokes are like low-level sitcom writing, though. Phil Mastorakis, the actor who is playing Jessica’s brother, a priest, complains that his pants are too tight, for instance: “By opening, my eyes will bug out so much they’ll think that I have a thyroid condition.” The character-based comedy isn’t any better: the playwright goes on a rant when an actor says “to” instead of the scripted “towards”. And the content about drunkenness is so predictable that it has overstayed its welcome before it has even arrived.
Still, director David Mackay and his team lavish their considerable skills on this text.
James Fagan Tait does a very nice job with Phil, the priest with the tight trousers. He stuffs Phil’s eye-popping outrage and neuroses with genuine feeling and, as things heat up, his arms start to wave around behind him like seaweed in the tidal zone. Ryan Beil scores big time as the playwright, Robert Ross. Like Tait, Beil makes his portrait work by fully committing to Robert’s illogic, and he creates some dizzy comic business, including stuffing both legs into one pant leg of a pair of pyjama bottoms. Martin Happer also makes a solid contribution as the long-suffering director, who is the play’s version of the comic straight man, the norm against which the rest of the lunacy is measured.
None of the acting is bad in this production, but Kamyar Pazendeh is miscast as the newbie actor Tom Kent. Like Tom, Pazendeh is a relatively recent theatre-school grad, but, as a big, muscular guy, Pazendeh strains to embody Tom’s fragility and ends up working too hard.
Act 2 of the play’s three acts unfolds backstage in the theatre’s green room and single dressing room, and the costume storage that rises to the top of the proscenium in Ted Roberts’s set design is a very nice touch. Director Mackay has set this production in 1979 and costume designer Mara Gottler rises to the challenge with a symphony of orange-and-brown polyester, flared pant legs, and clunky shoes.
The wigs, unfortunately, are dreadful. Jessica complains about the tacky blonde hairpiece she has to wear in the play-within-the-play, and it is appropriately tacky, but it’s no worse than the pageboy that Lauren Bowler sports as Peggy, a stage hand in the play proper: that wig looks like it’s been carved out of a single piece of plastic, like the hair on a Playmobil figurine.
Jitters isn’t evil. In its amiable way, it will divert a lot of people. But, to me, the script feels dusty and mostly pointless. Theatre is capable of so much more than this: it can be both more substantial and a hell of a lot funnier. So why waste our time with Jitters?
JITTERS by David French. Directed by David Mackay. An Arts Club production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Thursday, February 1. Continues until February 25.
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