By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Two (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)
“Wot’s your poison, luv?” says our genial host (Julien Arnold) in a rowdy pub somewhere in the north of Jolly Olde. His other half (Ruth Alexander), too, is pulling pints behind the bar. And they’re slinging insults at each other.
You can just about smell the stale beer and the carpet that will never, in the history of the world, give up its special pub whiff of old cig smoke and ground-up chips (sorry, crisps). Which is odd, since the stage is completely bare, save the chalk semi-circular outline of an English bar.
Which just goes to show you just how authentic Max Rubin’s Atlas Theatre production feels. Two, the 1989 two-hander by the English playwright Jim Cartwright, is based on the social proposition — which is also a theatrical proposition — that the neighbourhood pub is a magnet for an all-ages community cross-section.
Between them Arnold and Edmonton newcomer Alexander, a couple of very engaging and skilful actors, play 14 characters, and individualize them with impressive economy in gesture, voice, posture, slight adjustments of accent. There are couples in varying degrees of dissonance. There’s an elderly lady on an outing break from her invalid husband; she’s hot for the butcher (“blood everywhere!”). There’s a flirtatious old ladykiller who sponges off his put-upon lady friend. There’s a lonely old widower, and a middle-aged woman with a pipsqueak boyfriend and a preference for “gargantuan men.”
The palette runs from wistful (the “other woman” hoping to get a glimpse of her man with his wife) to raucous (a couple of plump-sters riffing amusingly on their fat). The queasiest is a control-freak husband and his cowed wife. And there’s even a kid, looking for his dad.
In this dexterous production the tone darkens from the comic; the cumulative character sketches return us to the pub-owner couple whose rancorous bickering has turned lethal. The dénouement steps audaciously up to a secret tragedy. And, thanks to the performances, it never feels grafted on. I toast them.