Did you hear the one about the two salesmen? Collin Doyle’s Slumberland Motel premieres, at Shadow

Julien Arnold, Reed McColm in Slumberland Motel, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I always seem to write old guys,” laughs playwright Collin Doyle. Now just into his 40s, Doyle wonders if he’s getting to be one. 

Doyle, whose keynote in conversation is a self-deprecating  blend of wry and rueful, is conjuring his younger self at a turning point  — the moment 11 years ago when, after four years, he’d finished writing Slumberland Motel, the award-winning Doyle comedy that finally gets its premiere Thursday, thanks to Shadow Theatre. 

“Maybe I was reflecting on being 29 and turning 30,” he muses. Doyle had already written The Mighty Carlins, a roistering black comedy of family dysfunction with a profane and vicious old patriarch at the centre. He’d shopped the script around to theatres here and elsewhere, and had the rejection letters to prove it.

They were nervous, he reports, that “the language was too harsh,” too peppered with F-bombs. Years would pass before the play premiered, in a 2008 Workshop West production in which John Wright memorably played the old guy. It was Doyle’s first professional production.

But even before that, he’d collaborated with friend and fellow actor James Hamilton on a play in which aging and the fear thereof thread through the fabric, like a radioactive dye through a vein. In Nighthawk Rules a couple of pals teetering on the brink of 30 are faced with the terrible prospect of growing up, getting dad jobs, and giving up all-night drinking contests and all-day football-watching marathons.

Meanwhile, “I wanted to write a comedy with no swear words,” as an experiment Doyle says simply, and sighs. Slumberland Motel was that playI thought I might as well submit it to the Alberta Playwriting Competition,” he says, with a shrug that’s almost audible. It won (just as The Mighty Carlins had two years before, in 2004). Everyone you talked to really liked it. No theatre stepped up. 

You can’t be a playwright in Alberta without resilience, patience and a well-developed sense of absurdity. And Doyle, “an actor who wanted to write” as he describes himself modestly, has all three. Did you hear the one about the playwright who waited 11 years for a theatre to produce his award-winning play?

“I put it away and went to NAIT,” to study TV and film. “I was interested in editing stories and video at the time,” he says. “I didn’t know I’d end up in production.”

For the last seven years when Doyle, a National Theatre School grad, isn’t in theatres, as an actor or a playwright, you could find him at Global Television, working his way up from prompter operator to production assistant; now he’s the control room director in the Global news department, workings shifts on the 6, 10 p.m. or late news broadcasts — a gig he compares to being a theatre stage manager.

Disappointment, says Doyle genially, is at the heart of Slumberland Motel, the first of two Doyle premieres in this half of the season. It’s the “friendly comedy” to the “much darker” Too Late To Stop Now, cheerfully described by the playwright as “a black comedy about alcoholism” that debuts in May in a Dave Horak production at Edmonton Actors Theatre.

The old guys” of Slumberland Motel (Reed McColm and Julien Arnold) are two itinerant vacuum cleaner salesmen, Ed and Edward, who get stuck in a snowstorm and find themselves sharing a shabby motel room on Christmas Eve. It’s 1972, and they are “no longer relevant,” as Doyle puts it.

“Vacuum cleaners used to be an easy sell. Now, not so much,” as Doyle says. “There must have been a time when they were special. Now everyone has one. A common household tool not a dream item any more. Not special.”

IPods, washing machines, dishwaters have all joined the ranks of the “not special,” the “not something you dream about having.” Selling them is a sort of cultural redundancy. They are a given. Poor Ed and Edward.

They’re a contrasting pair, as Doyle describes them. A sense of failure permeates Ed (McColm); Edward (Arnold), says his creator, is different. He “decides on reality and shapes his reality around him…. Which lets the play go in strange places, on positive flights of fancy.”

“The play’s a lot about failure.” Doyle laughs his rueful laugh. “There’s lots of physical comedy in it. There’s a kind of vaudeville about it.”

Julien Arnold, Aimée Beaudoin, Reed McColm in Slumberland Motel, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux Photography.

And, ah, there’s a connecting door to the next room. Arnold’s character Edward “is obsessed with it and what’s on the other side.” What, and as it turns out, who. The mysterious woman in the next room is crucial to the way the play unfolds in Act II.

I can’t tell you more, except to say that doors are big with Doyle. They might be locked, but they open. And change is possible. 

PREVIEW

Slumberland Motel 

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Collin Doyle

Starring: Julien Arnold, Reed McColm, Aimée Beaudoin

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Feb. 4

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org 

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