Well-intentioned and over two-hours long, the audio play Night Passing is, unfortunately, boring.
Set in Ottawa in 1958, playwright Scott Button’s script explores the entrapment of gay men and lesbians by the RCMP. Fueled by anti-communist hysteria south of the border, the force was trying to “cleanse” the civil service of queer folk who were, presumably, easier to blackmail.
Entrapment is, of course, blackmail by the establishment.
Just after he moves to Ottawa from a small town, Button’s protagonist, Elliot, is seduced into making out in an alley with a creepy undercover cop who insists on being called Dad. Photos are taken. Dad pressures Elliot into informing on other gay men.
As I launch into my criticisms of the script, I want to make it clear that I’m not laying them solely at Button’s feet. He’s an emerging writer and the Arts Club’s senior artists — notably Steven Drover and Rachel Peake, who acted as dramaturgs on this project — should have given Button more guidance before they allowed Night Passing to air.
Okay, here we go.
The story fails to engage partly because Elliot is so easily pushed into betrayal. The script doesn’t adequately contextualize the terror this young guy would have felt so, when Elliot blithely starts doing Dad’s dirty work, it’s hard to feel any sense of sympathy for him. Once Elliot has agreed to betray other men, the story doesn’t provide a potential escape route for him for too long, so there’s virtually no narrative tension. And there’s precious little psychological or thematic tension either: as written, Dad is an easily dismissible antagonist, a villainous cartoon of a self-loathing homosexual. (I’ve never bought the argument that our homophobic oppressors secretly want to be more like us.)
All of that said, some elements of the writing are more successful. A few examples: a parable about a cat who was turned into a woman — it’s about the inescapability of our true natures — is effective in its first couple of iterations; Button wisely uses the time-honoured radio device of direct narration for some of his storytelling; and he gives Elliot’s mom a subtle speech about the price of lying.
Under Ashlie Corcoran’s direction, the production is slick. I particularly appreciated the film noir feel of Murray Price’s original music and sound design. The actors — notably Chris Lam as Elliot, Jennifer Copping as a lesbian named Josephine, and Marco Soriano as a bureaucrat called Jim — do solid work.
It seems to me that it’s difficult for an increasing percentage of the population to imagine what homophobia was like in Canada in the 50s and 60s. That’s the result of progress, of course, so, in that sense, it’s a good thing. But the real pain of the period’s injustices demand resonant representation.
NIGHT PASSING By Scott Button. Directed by Ashlie Corcoran. This Arts Club audio play is part of the Arts Club’s new four-play audio series Listen to This. Here’s where to get tickets for Night Passing or for the whole series. Both run until September 15.
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