Sometimes I think that theatre companies should offer half-price tickets to people who only want to watch Act 2.
Act 1 of The Birds & the Bees is a waste of time.
Admittedly, it sets up the story. Thirty-eight-year-old Sarah’s 11-year marriage has just broken up — the sex is long dead — so she has come to crash at her mother Gail’s place. Gail is divorced, intrusive, and ungenerous, but she is pals with her neighbour Earl. (Earl and Gail’s spouses left them to set up house together.) When Ben, a handsome young master’s student arrives to study Gail’s bees, the play’s fundamental trajectory is carved in granite: Sarah and Ben will end up together and so will Gail and Earl.
And there’s not much to watch as you await the inevitable. There’s a bunch of slapstick, but it’s not funny. One of Gail’s bees stings Ben near his penis so he screams and roots around and Sarah has to help him and he shoves frozen peas down his shorts and screams some more. When Ben and Sarah eventually have sex, they stumble about. He falls over. You sit there, aging.
Miraculously, Act 2 turns itself around. It shows some heart. I won’t give away how, but playwright Mark Crawford ups the stakes. And, in this production, he’s got a strong cast working for him, with Dawn Petten as Sarah leading the charge. Simply and honestly, she inhabits Sarah’s vulnerability when Sarah has no idea what to do and when she finally, tenderly considers the possibility that she might really care for Ben.
And you couldn’t ask for more seasoned pros than Susinn McFarlen (Gail) and Tom McBeath (Earl). McFarlen in particular sinks into her part, never apologizing for Gail’s abrasiveness or shrinking away from her need.
Christopher Allen has a bit more trouble as Ben. He overacts like mad in the comic sequences, but that can’t be entirely his fault. It was director Lauren Taylor’s job to rein him in. And, when the play settles down, so does Allen: in the body of Act 2, his Ben arrives in an appealingly, credibly human place.
To playwright Crawford’s credit, The Birds & the Bees is sex-positive — and, astonishingly, that celebration includes the play’s older characters. Gail and Earl are both in the sixties so it’s great to watch them romping. It’s also great that director Taylor isn’t horrified by 60-year-old flesh. She lets us see it.
That said, Crawford’s ultimate message is conservative. He flirts with ideas of non-monogamy and single parenthood, but it’s no big surprise when the play resolves on completely traditional terms.
And, speaking of resolution, Crawford saddles Ben with a long, explanatory speech — that doesn’t make much sense. There’s been an ongoing thread about environmental collapse — Gail’s bees are dying — and Ben, who is doing his masters in biology, is writing a paper about it. The general idea seems to be that we need to accept unexpected developments. That speaks to the play’s romantic resolutions, but what about the fucking bees?
THE BIRDS & THE BEES By Mark Crawford. Directed by Lauren Taylor. An Arts Club Theatre production at the Granville Island Stage on Friday, October 4. Continues until October 26. Tickets.
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