By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I can explain….”
Just guessing, but those three words have sent more screwballs hurtling into comedy space than any other phrase in the lexicon, including “I’ll get the door.”
Every time you hear them in Going, Going, Gone!, a sparkly, appealingly warm-hearted new 30s-style screwball by sketch and improv comedy star Jana O’Connor, its escalating tower of lies teeters crazily. In Teatro La Quindicina’s premiere production, directed by Dave Horak, our cautious, serious-minded, habit-bound hero is realizing, with some alarm, that while he’s become “inadvertently engaged” to one woman, he’s on a madcap impromptu adventure with another.
Only spontaneity can save him now. And spontaneity isn’t something you can plan for. It’s life as improv. Fun if you’re up for it, the way Edie (Rachel Bowron) is. Terrifying if you’re not, the way nerdy antiques dealer Grant Carlyle (Andrew MacDonald-Smith) isn’t.
The tingly boost you get from screwball comedies is the way they lift the weight of expectation from the shoulders of their characters. And they watch, amused, as inevitability gets replaced by something airier and more effervescent, but in a way more substantial: the sense of possibility.
Horak’s production sets forth that proposition physically in his highly amusing stagecraft of the jaunty, speedy opening scene. It’s wordless but set to sprightly Stephane Grappelli/ Django Reinhardt tunes.
The set pieces — multiple doors, screens, mirror — exist in both real and painted 2-D versions in Chantel Fortin’s amusing design (lit by Matthew Alan Currie). And they’re assembled with jazzy bustle by Horak’s all-star cast. It comes down to a physical counterpoint duet, on either side of the stage, between a man who is ironing his socks before he puts them on, and a larky woman trying on dresses and stockings, rejecting them and casually flinging them down.
Bowron is enchantingly vivacious as Edie, born to wear red lipstick and say breezily “sorry, I can’t hear you over all those bubbles!”
The official fiancée (Celina Dean, returning to Teatro after a decade’s absence), is high contrast. Betsy is a formidably brittle sort, a chicken factory heiress with a disapproving air. She’s bent on (a) marriage and (b) prospects, namely a more impressive income than Grant’s “little hobby” with “that antique-y thing” can possibly provide. Dean gives her a soprano trill of a laugh that could shatter frozen poultry at 100 paces.
And the wonderful MacDonald-Smith is alert to every comic possibility in a tentative bloke for whom the pursuit of a George III candlestick has the only kind of urgency he has ever experienced — until now. As Grant, a non-swimmer, so to speak, in the sea of romance fumbling his way to stay afloat, MacDonald captures anxious nerdism with sublime expertise. The grimace of sheer horror — even his straw boater seems taken aback — with which he greets the sight of his free-spirit mother (Davina Stewart) in the arms of her Latino lover will make you smile out loud.
I know, I haven’t told you a thing about what sets O’Connor’s amazingly intricate screwball plot in motion. I can explain…. Just kidding. Anyhow, two objects figure prominently: a George III candlestick and Grant’s Great-Gran’s diamond ring. There’s a moment, a crucial moment, when both go AWOL and order gives at the seams. And it’s a classic of period screwballs, farces, and espionage capers world-wide: two identical suitcases get switched at the train station and leave with the wrong people.
Panic ensues on the part of one of those people — and I leave you to guess which one.
O’Connor and Horak hang a multi-character plot of surpassing complexity on the comic virtuosity of one man, Mark Meer. As required, moment to moment, Meer switches out every ‘30s supporting character: bellhop to waiter to Lothario, crusty old rich guy father to prim desk clerk, eight or more. Sometimes, hilariously, he’s two in the same scene, with O’Connor lines to match: “Never fails!” barks Edie’s dad with cheery exasperation, re-entering the scene after the exit of the waiter. “You leave the table, the waiter comes….”
The most riotous of all is Meer as a gravel-voiced auctioneer so short he can’t be seen over the podium. There’s a laugh-out-loud fight scene I won’t spoil for you.
It’s not a quickie play: the panic takes time and scenes get played out at length. People say “I can explain” … and then they actually do. So you’ll have time to savour the fun of Leona Brausen’s assembly of ’30s costumes: Bowron spends much of the play wearing a bowed polka-dot chapeau that should get its own curtain call.
At the heart, and there is one, of Going, Going, Gone! is unpremeditated self-discovery by a man who has hitherto always ordered the Salisbury steak in restaurants. His gradual, reluctant transformation into a man who’s up for trying the special of the day — without even knowing what it is — will lighten your heart, and make you laugh.
And this transformation is surrounded by other discoveries, too. Though parental expectation is a traditional obstacle to happiness in comedy — not to mention a compelling reason for the escalating web of lies — O’Connor in the end has a soft spot for the older generation. The Act I scenes between father and daughter and mother and son change contours in their Act II counterparts.
Adventures, it seems, happen in increments. But as in auctions, there’s a fleeting life-changing moment before the gavel comes down and the candlestick of your dreams goes to someone else, when the cosmic fun quotient is up for grabs.
As its title hints, the show is a short-run proposition (it ends July 1). After that, Gone!. So the moment to enjoy a full-on screwball assault on caution is now.
Going, Going, Gone!
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written by: Jana O’Connor
Directed by: Dave Horak
Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Rachel Bowron, Celina Dean, Mark Meer, Davina Stewart
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through July 1
Tickets: 780-433-3399, teatroq.com