By Todd Babiak
The Exquisite Hour (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)
Stewart Lemoine has written wilder comedies, with more intricate plots. His dialogue is sometimes more sparkling, more self-consciously ingenious. In other Lemoine plays, there are more laugh-out loud scenes. Lemoine characters can be in deeper peril than in The Exquisite Hour.
But this tender two-hander, written specifically for the odd constraints of the Fringe, might be his most perfect play. It has everything we most love about Lemoine’s strange and illuminating comedies, where people speak and act with a little bit more care and a little bit more abandon, at once. The world he crafts is just as charmed.
What makes The Exquisite Hour so special, and just a little bit different, is the immediately recognizable fragility of Mrs. Darimont and Zach Teale, played by Belinda Cornish and Jeff Haslam, two of Lemoine’s longest-running and finest collaborators.
We’re in a backyard somewhere in North America, where Zach tends his garden and sips lemonade with just a bit of a kick. Mrs. Darimont shows up with a basket and a plan. She has something to sell. Like any good marketer, Mrs. Darimont wants to change her potential client’s life in some small — or large — way by probing him for a void or wound. She will offer to transform him with a sweetly bygone product: a set of encyclopaedias.
The focus on words and their meaning, what we make of them, allows Lemoine and his performers to enter a highly civilized world. But Zach is just a little bit less eloquent than other Lemoine men, and a little less clever than the roles Haslam often plays. He is lonely, wounded in ways we come to feel more than understand. The brilliant Mrs. Darimont is just as vulnerable.
Haslam and Cornish handle the subtle transformation in The Exquisite Hour, from afternoon to evening, well, exquisitely. The play is moving and mysterious and masterful.