By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In Sexy Laundry, the hit 2005 sitcom by Vancouver playwright Michele Riml currently onstage at the Mayfield, we meet Henry and Alice, a middle-aged couple whose 25-year-old marriage has gone stale.
At the instigation of the latter (and with the reluctant participation of the former) they’ve checked into a high-end hotel for a dirty weekend, designed to put the fizz back into the marital cocktail. In this adventure in relationship repair, they’re armed with a self-help guide, Sex For Dummies, from the library.
It’s the first of a series of antique sight gags — which will later include a whip for her and a TV clicker for him — that add to a mountain of evidence that relationships aren’t the only thing in life that can go mouldy. The Canadian play repertoire has its share of best-before’s too. And it takes very game and spirited actors to dig selflessly into this thinly spread well-trampled turf.
Kudos then to Patricia Darbasie’s production, and to Davina Stewart and Glenn Nelson, who are real pros, and gifted clowns. Their playground is a strikingly convincing upscale hotel room artfully created on the Mayfield stage by designer John Dinning. And the costumes by Leona Brausen are a plot device in themselves.
Anyhow, back to Sex For Dummies. It explains why we will be confronted later in the play by other related sight gags — Henry dancing in his boxers, for example, or Alice checking out sexy girth-clenching poses in the mirror — designed to remind us of the comical tribulations of aging. And in Sexy Laundry it’s meant to trigger couples discussions in which Henry and Alice review their middle-aged grievances, disappointments, fantasies and humiliations. “I’m sharing my needs with you,” says Alice, quoting from the guide. Henry looks understandably glum.
Gender disparities and stereotyping are the framework on which Sexy Laundry is hung out. Henry the stick-in-the-mud likes to unwind after work with an hour of TV news. Talking? “You married an engineer not a poet.” Alice, talking the talk, wants to “reconnect” and “find what we had.” She worries that he’s more attracted to the TV clicker than exploring her bod — is it the extra pounds? Is sex something you do during commercials? She points out that men, not women, are allowed to age and be sexy. James Bond gets older; “his girlfriends never do.” True, Alice, true.
Their fantasies when they can finally think up any, don’t jibe, needless to say. Hers run to sexy Italian waiters, his to a vision of family dinner in which “the children laugh; they think I’m funny.” And then the kids do the dishes.
It’s contentment vs self-improvement, appreciating what you have vs making it even better. “Nothing is as good as it could be,” objects Henry, the one with the practical streak. “That’s life.” Will they recapture the spark of yore, and resolve stuff, in a ‘heartwarming’ way, instead of “throwing away” 25 years of marriage? I leave you to this agonizing suspense. Order a signature Mayfield cocktail.
Calling a sitcom clichéd isn’t exactly cutting-edge criticism. It’s not that gender clichés haven’t contributed to the rise of the modern sitcom. I’m thinking of the Kramdens in the still very funny classic The Honeymooners. Sutton Foster’s series Younger is all about aging. Think of all the cliché dads on TV. It’s just that Sexy Laundry just strings so many clichés together; it’s a veritable repository, with no real attention to momentum, or how many should be discarded (or upgraded or diverted) in the interests of comic currency. This is a play that doesn’t even bother to conceal how calculating it is.
So Nelson and Stewart have their work cut out for them, forging a time-worn relationship from thin cut-outs and self-help-speak. It takes a plucky spirit to wrest laughter from a scene in which a middle-aged woman says Fuck a lot. Or an engineer who can’t get the damn clicker to work, unlocks dance music by accident instead, and wiggles his butt. Rueful paunch-clutching has its place in the contemporary comedy, who could deny it?, but it isn’t automatically funny. Both actors rise admirably to the occasion.
As in laundry demos on YouTube, it’s not so much what’s being laundered, as the care that goes into folding it.
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Written by: Michele Riml
Directed by: Patricia Darbasie
Starring: Glenn Nelson, Davina Stewart
Running: through Aug. 7
Tickets: mayfieldtheatre.ca, 780-483-4051