By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
What is a salesman but a teller of stories and a purveyor of dreams?
Willie Loman knew it. And so does Edward, the more optimistic half of the pair of travelling vacuum cleaner salesmen who find themselves sharing a sad motel room on a snowy Christmas Eve, 1972.
For 20 years Ed and Edward, the odd couple of Collin Doyle’s very funny, very wistful Slumberland Motel — the 2006 Alberta Playwriting Award winner premiering at Shadow Theatre — have been on the road, selling not just suction but convenience, liberation, the possibility of happiness. And it’s come to this: a curiously large motel room that’s the very landscape of disappointment. Wallpaper the colour of vomit, brown curtains that don’t fit, a mattress with a sag, bad lino, jaundiced lighting (designer: Matt Currie), pictures of clowns (designer: C.M. Zuby).
“Clowns are nice,” says Edward (Julien Arnold) who has retained a certain bounce through three and possibly four marriages. “Not in the middle of the night,” says Ed (Reed McColm), his phlegmatic partner, grimly.
If there’s any justice — and I’m not saying there is, gawd knows, times being what they are — Ed and Edward as definitively embodied by Arnold and McColm in John Hudson’s production would be to Canadian theatre roughly what Burns & Allen are to American vaudeville and Felix and Oscar are to American comedy. Quintessential.
They are the poster boys for middle-age disappointment, for a sense of waning hope and shrinking time. The spectrum that goes from possibility to failure has tipped. Arnold’s perky Edward, who has the most amusingly buoyant hair of the season (designer: Leona Brausen), keeps it at bay. McColm’s Ed is a repository of deadpan wit, literal-minded asides, and mordant double-takes. Where Ed sees strangers, Edward sees “potential customers.” Reality, like optimism, he argues, is a deliberate choice. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but alas, it has proven merely indifferent, through over-exposure, to vacuum cleaners.
There will come a time in Slumberland Motel, a time with impeccable narrative credentials (really!), when you see a memorably comical double-portrait: lugubrious Ed in his slippers and primly buttoned flannelette pyjamas; Edward barefoot and beaming in an improvised toga.
I’d tell you to hold that thought, but having planted it I know perfectly well you won’t be able to shake it. The “comic nudity” as per the theatre warning, I leave you to discover for yourself. My own favourite image is the balletic pas de deux for man and vacuum cleaner, set to Darrin Hagen’s fanciful original score.
As Edmonton audiences know from The Mighty Carlins, Nighthawk Rules among other Doyles, the playwright is a dab hand at comic dialogue with unexpected edges. To the repartee of Act I, beautifully timed by Arnold and McColm in Hudson’s production, is added a vaudevillian assortment of sight gags.
Why is Edward under one of the beds? Checking out the motel room for dead bodies. “In a hotel I never check for dead bodies?” he says brightly. “What do you look for in a hotel?” Ed can’t resist asking after a well-timed pause. “I check window ledges for jumpers,” beams his sales partner.
The connecting door, locked, is Slumberland Motel’s presiding symbol. It fascinates Edward. He can’t stay away from it. What’s on the other side? Ed is content with the not knowing. Not Edward. “What do you imagine is on the other side?”
In Act II, a mysterious woman (Aimée Beaudoin) arrives from behind that door. Are they dreaming? Has Edward conjured her? Is she the horizon of the might-have-been?
Thoughts about time, hope, the fear of loneliness, filter through the second act like smoke. Beaudoin’s tricky acting assignment is is to not shut down the possibilities. Dreams are elusive; their best-before date is smudgy. We tell bedtime stories to keep them alive.
Written by: Collin Doyle
Directed by: John Hudson
Starring: Julien Arnold, Reed McColm, Aimée Beaudoin
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 82 Ave.
Running: through Feb. 4
Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org