Capturing the screwball effect: Vidalia, the larky Teatro season finale. A review

Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Belinda Cornish, Helen Belay, Chris Pereira in Vidalia, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If you’ve ever had the feeling that chaos was a mere blink away — and really, who hasn’t? — the screwball comedy is your go-to form.

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The unnerving sense that the fabric of modern life could unravel into disconnected threads at any moment, or get re-stitched into a suit someone else is wearing (while they’re eating your lunch) … these are signs that you may have wandered, by random chance, into a screwball. That’s where the ordinary, the mundane, the safely repeatable and un-momentous turn out to have a few screws loose, and become uncontrollably madcap.

Suddenly you might find yourself describing your life as a “romp.” And who on earth would ever think of using that term of themselves? Seriously. 

This is what happens in Vidalia, the fizzy Stewart Lemoine screwball cork-popper that has been revived after 17 years as the grand finale of Teatro La Quindicina’s summer season. Suit salesman Douglas Bloor (Chris Pereira) discovers that his regular practice of carrying his lunch to work in a briefcase has become life-changing, in ways and for reasons he can’t even begin to comprehend. “I have a feeling I don’t even work here any more,” he says. “Why am I a different person?”

Douglas finds himself desperately hiding in his own menswear shop changing room, and pretending to be a Pomeranian tailor whose purchase on English is slender-unto-nil. Meanwhile an espionage plot involving three identical briefcases roils around him, and two spies on a park bench find themselves musing on the sudden unreality of … everything.

“I’m having such an odd day,” says George (Andrew MacDonald-Smith), the more organized and possibly dangerous of the two. “I seem to be living someone else’s life.” The other spy, Ann (Belinda Cornish), the more self-dramatizing of the two, is shoring herself up against a deluge of panic.

How could this happen? Is it right to blame a suit salesman for cheaping it out and bringing his lunch when he could be doing Greek take-out?

In Vidalia, named after a gourmet Georgia onion, we are talking about a play in which unlatching a briefcase becomes an apotheosis of tension, dread, and suspense. The escalation is intricate and (this is crucial) effortless. And effortlessness is hard to pull off (a showbiz paradox worthy of further study) and may be a contributing factor in the scarcity of original screwball comedies in this country. The Lemoine canon, incidentally, has several, including Skirts on Fire, Whiplash Weekend, On The Banks Of The Nut, For The Love Of Cynthia. Like the onion itself, the seasonal Georgia star veg that you don’t cry over, screwballs are “unexpectedly sweet and hardly ever available.”

But I digress. The agent provocateur is a bright, impulsive, take-charge meddler (Helen Belay) whose instinctive preference is “why not?” over “why?” every time. When she tosses off the casual lie that her name is Vidalia she is destabilizing the world and stage-managing a screwball — all in the interest of making life more, well, entertaining. As an agenda, fun isn’t even an agenda. Which is what makes fun funny — as Lemoine’s Teatro cast, equally divided between veterans and newcomers, easily grasps.

Newcomer Belay, who has a dazzling smile much in evidence, is delightful as the quick-witted instigator, who gravitates to every improbability. “I’ll break protocol,” she says in response to a challenge. “But just because I like your moxie.” 

“What’s wrong with him?” someone asks “Vidalia” about the yapping Pomeranian. “He’s just appalled by something!” she shrugs. Pereira, in his Teatro debut, is very funny as the appalled party, the perplexed innocent reduced (or is it inflated) to histrionic imposture by incomprehensible compulsions.

Cornish and MacDonald-Smith are experts at delivering the combination of throw-away wit and reductive zingers that goes into the infrastructure. The former, often cast in roles of inscrutable elegance, is a riot as someone whose icy composure melts into epic confusion, tantrums, and self-esteem issues: “I get ambitions and I lose my way.”

MacDonald-Smith’s command of breezy charm, in trench coat or posh suit (costumes by Leona Brausen), is put to excellent use, overlaid with a killer edge. What fun it is to see the two of them at the cocktail hour, trying to decide if they’re in a rom-com or a spy caper gone wrong.

The scene changes on Chantel Fortin’s set are high-speed dance numbers. And along with the briefcases and flip cellphones they constitute a veritable choreography of random possibilities — the kind that add up, and unleash the screwball effect in routine lives. It’s a larky enterprise and a view of the world.  

REVIEW

Vidalia

Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina

Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Helen Belay, Chris Pereira

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Oct. 12

Tickets: teatroq.com

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