September 5th – November 4th, 2012
Listen to my review from this morning on CBC Eyeopener http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2012/09/06/jessica-goldman—sexy-laundry/
You know those obvious but mildly amusing PG-rated risqué jokes that you can tell your grandparents without feeling embarrassed? Well expand that joke into a one-act, two-hander comedy about a married couple trying to put the spice back into their relationship and you have the play Sexy Laundry.
The show, written by Canadian playwright Michelle Riml, was first performed at the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2002 and has gone on to become something of a world-wide phenomenon in the light comedy circuit. To date, Sexy Laundry has been performed not just across Canada, but also in the US, Britain, South Africa and Germany with several translations pushing the wide appeal of the play.
The show opens with Alice and Henry, a married couple of 25 years, in a room at the L Hotel, the latest, hottest, trendy, expensive hotel in town. Alice has rented the hotel room for the weekend so that she and Henry can spend some time trying to spice up their relationship and bring romance and passion back into their marriage. You see, Alice is pretty dissatisfied with the way things are going and Henry is pretty dissatisfied with Alice’s nagging him to change all the time. Cue standard comic fodder.
The added amusing catalyst to the story is that Alice has brought along a Sex for Dummies manual in the hopes that the book’s exercises will help the couple become more connected sexually. Alice and Henry make half-hearted attempts at activities such as ‘share your fantasy’ or ‘give nicknames to your partner’s sexual body parts’, but instead of getting closer and more intimate, the couple spend most of the time fighting about their relationship and what is missing from the marriage. Possibly to the point of a breakup.
So we watch as the obvious lines, arguments and punch lines get thrown around and occasionally they are amusing, as when after hearing Alice’s threesome fantasy Henry says he wishes she fantasized about some more normal like meadows and white knights. Alice responds with “I think you are confusing my fantasies with a Maxi-pad commercial!” Cute enough. Sometimes the writing is even surprisingly insightful on the gender divide and the problems that arise when a marriage goes stale, as when Henry complains that he signed up for a weekend of passion and all he’s got is Alice complaining about everything he does. “I am who I am, Alice”, he says. “No you are not Henry”, says Alice. “You are a shadow of who you used to be”. Nice line I thought.
But other than these few little lovely moments, the script lurches from one clichéd joke to another with comedic writing that personifies a ‘been there done that’ experience. Sure they get the easy giggles from audience members who like to see the same old dynamics played out on the stage, but frankly I was bored and ached for a more inventive and surprising way of telling this story.
So I suppose I can’t completely fault ex Falcon Crest star, William Remington Moses for his fine but not great performance. Moses plays Henry, a straight-laced, mildly successful, frugal engineer who just wants to come home, watch the news and not be bothered with talking about feelings or worrying about intimacy issues. Not a bad guy, just a middle-aged man who loves his wife and doesn’t want to think too much about it. On top of the mostly banal writing, Henry is not a particularly interesting role to play – a fairly obvious kind of character who is dramatized for his quirks rather than as a full character. Without much to work with, Moses does a fine job, however I found him a little too unmodulated in his emotional range at times. In his hands, Henry seems the same whether he’s mad or surprised or upset and it further dilutes his already dull character. But the sameness wasn’t intolerably glaring and Moses did manage to bring a nice ease to the role that at least made Henry somewhat believable and made the clichéd lines bearable to watch.
Ease however is not how I would describe Jane Spidell’s acting. Alice’s character is the one that gets all the personality and all the funny lines and it should be a role an actor has fun with. Spidell was caught up in trying so hard to “Capital A” act this part that she felt forced and stiff and pretty much undercut any chemistry the couple had on stage. However, just as I was going to write Spidell off completely, she delivered a monologue about three-quarters into the play about going back to the gym for the first time in years – and she did a great job. She was funny, and relaxed and well-timed and brought a much-needed spark to the production. That’s when I realized, Spidell was fun to watch when she was delivering solo lines but the minute she had to interact with Moses, she lost it again. I’m not sure what that says about her as an actress or maybe the casting choice of putting these two together, but regardless of the reason, Spidell’s Alice was mostly lacking.
Also lacking was Sean D. Ellis’ swanky hotel room set which was anything but swanky. More Ramada Inn than Ritz Carlton, the room was decorated in hues of brown and orange (hello 1970’s!) and not in a retro cool kinda way either. In what I suppose was an attempt at minimalist chic came off as cheap and dingy which would have been fine, but for the big fuss the script makes about how chic the L Hotel is.
Director J. Sean Elliot does an acceptable job moving his two-hander show around the stage with enough diversity to keep the action interesting. However I wish he’d been more succinct with some of the more physical gags instead of letting them drag on to the point of way past funny. In particular, the scene near the end of the play where Alice brings out all the stops to seduce her husband milked the joke so hard I was literally cringing and looking at my watch.
So no, Sexy Laundry is not the type of theatre that turns me on. That said, I can’t say I completely hated it. Even with all the many faults, the show does have its charms and some of the insights into male/female relationships are well presented. To be fair, there was plenty of giggling going on around me, so I believe most of the Stage West audience were amused by it even if I wasn’t. For me, the most ringing endorsement I can muster is to say it was a passably fine light night in the theatre.
For the guys – Lots of jokes about nagging wives and the impossible pressures they put on men. But nothing you haven’t heard before, told better. MAYBE SEE IT
For the gals – Lots of jokes about unromantic husbands and how hard it is to be a middle-aged woman. But nothing that you haven’t heard before, told better. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Familiar comic territory that delivers exactly what you expect it done well enough. SEE IT
For the theatre junkies – Nothing for you here. Move along. SKIP IT
To be fair, you should let your readers know that you watched the first preview. Any true “theatre junkie” knows that a critic shouldn’t be writing a review of the first public performance. You’re correct though, “Sexy Laundry” is not exactly high art (have you *ever* seen Stage West produce anything resembling “art”?)
For those of us who were there on the actual “press night”, we heard the audience roar with laughter and, believe it or not, people see themselves in Henry & Alice, poor writing notwithstanding.
As well, Jane Spidell has been one of Canadian Theatre’s leading ladies for close to 30 years. Stage West is lucky to have her and William R. Moses is more than fortunate to have such a scene partner.
Mention the names “Jane Spidell” and “William R. Moses” to any Artistic Director in this country, and see for yourself which actor they’d be willing to hire.
Quite true that I was there at a preview performance. However the team at Stage West invited me there that night specifically to review, so I had to treat the performance like any other. And I do believe that my comments on the production would have been the same regardless what night I saw the play on. The issues were not preview jitters in my opinion, but rather faults with the production, performances and writing. Similarly, I believe any praise I had to give would have also been the same regardless of the performance date.