Hal Kerbes as Henry, Frank Zotter as Callum, Christopher Hunt as David and Joe Perry as Daniel in Almost a Love Story by Louis B. Hobson. Photo by Benjamin Laird.
Almost a Love Story
April 29 – May 18, 2013
When I get asked if I know a particular Calgary actor or director or playwright, my answer is usually yes, but not in person. People are always surprised by this. “You’ve never met them? But you’re a theatre critic?” Exactly, I say. As a critic, I don’t want to know the actor or the director or the writer. I want to be able to watch them work with no prejudices or attachments or personal feelings whatsoever. And I manage to pull this off pretty well most of the time. But the Calgary theatre scene is a tight community and every once in a while it’ll happen than I will meet someone I have to review. And that’s fine. I keep it casual and write it off to just being part of the gig I need to deal with. But now, a colleague of mine has gone and completely mucked up this whole arm’s length arrangement for me.
Without any consideration for my professional ethics whatsoever, Louis B Hobson, theatre critic for the Calgary Sun and one of my favorite people, has written a play and darned if the folks at Lunchbox Theatre aren’t producing it as their final show of the year. At first I considered not reviewing Almost a Love Story, a play about a son who discovers his dead father had a secret male lover. Not because I couldn’t be honest about the show, but for fear that if I was, and if I disliked the play, I might be hurting a pal and jeopardizing a friendship. To his credit, Louis told me that this was unacceptable. I absolutely was to see the play, review it, and if I hated it we’d still be a right as rain. Well, with permission like that (and curiosity to see what he’d come up with) I took the plunge. And now I’m hoping Louis meant what he said, because I found Almost a Love Story to be lacking in almost every way possible.
Directed by Pamela Halstead, the play tells the story of Daniel (Joe Perry), a young adult aspiring actor who seeks out his dead father’s drama teacher colleague Callum (Frank Zotter) to help him prepare for an audition. Callum agrees to help but privately airs his anxieties about the situation to his ridiculously and pejoratively flamboyant friend Henry (Hal Kerbes). Turns out that Callum and Daniel’s father David (Christopher Hunt) were engaged in a secret four-year affair that ended when David realized he had terminal cancer and needed to call things off and concentrate on his wife (Lindsay Burns) and son. Far from finding comfort in the brief love they had, Callum struggles to let go of David both emotionally and in a more physical remembrance manner. In an expected and obvious narrative arc, Callum and David’s secret is found out and the ramifications of David’s other life affects all who loved him.
But just because the general plot is an oft written and popular model (Brad Fraser’s True Love Lies and Mike Mills’ Beginners come to mind) doesn’t mean it can’t be written with adroitness and invigorated with new feeling. Unfortunately what Hobson have given us instead is, to paraphrase David Mamet, melodrama without invention or believability.
In their first audition rehearsal, Daniel segues from a discussion about natural acting to accusing Callum of being his father’s lover without so much as an emotional change in tone or pace. Much worse however is that Daniel goes from being angry to being fine with the whole situation in a matter of seconds, so much so that he asks Callum to continue helping him with his monologue prep. I know that Lunchbox shows are only 50 minutes long, but surely more time could have been given to what should have been a complex and sensitive scene.
The writing continues in this emotionally wallop-less and unrealistic manner throughout the show taking us from a flaccid flashback of David and Callum’s first pangs of lust to an ill-conceived scene of Daniel’s sexual confusion to David’s lacklustre admissions of illness to his lover and wife. Layered onto these script issues is a heavy helping of Shakespeare mixed into the dialogue. A portrayal of a scene in Hamlet is what brings the male lovers together; it is Iago’s monologue that Daniel initially wants to perform for his audition; the superstition of Macbeth is bantered about the one time David, Daniel and Callum actually meet and I believe it’s a quote from Two Gentleman of Verona that Callum uses to eventually send Daniel on his way. Mixing metaphors in this dialogue manner is fine and dandy, but for it to work the actors have to be able to do the words justice and that just isn’t the case. In fact even without the famous lines, this cast can’t seem to rise above the problematic script.
Perry as Daniel makes the best of the character he is given and at times delivers the most natural acting of the cast despite scenes that render him implausible. Zotter as Callum tries his hardest to tug at our heart-strings, but more often than not ends up whining and whinging his discomfort in an effort to bring some emotion to the words. Burns manages to conjure some anger in her final scenes, but her milquetoast performance up until that point makes her an afterthought at best. Kerbes goes full throttle as a screaming Kimono-clad queen who prefers to dole out clichéd barbs as show tunes rather than plain English. He does illicit a few giggles from the audience, but to my mind this type of hackneyed acting is cheap laughs at best. Most disappointing is the feloniously wasted talents of Hunt as David. Monotone, hands in pockets and without one ounce of the passion or excitement we are told the character exudes, Hunt numbly wanders on and off the stage in flashback scenes that are so bereft of impact they manage to neuter the play as a whole.
They say in the theater that the writer creates the blueprints and the actors are the bricks, but it is the director that is the architect of the whole structure. It is for this reason that much of the responsibility for the failings of Almost a Love Story fall with Halstead. The dubious scenes, the poorly performed Shakespeare, the groan-worthy camp and the waste of talent all happened under her watch. With direction that either could not or would not challenge the problems this play needed to overcome, Halstead was yet another disappointing element in show that desperately needed a strong hand to whip it into shape.
Hobson claims that his goal for Almost a Love Story was not to shock, but rather to “encourage dialogue and to look at love in all its glorious diversity.” I have no doubt that this was his sincere intention. But in a line that Henry would no doubt approve of, the road to hell is paved with a playwright’s good intention.
For the guys and the girls – You know this story. You know these characters. They will surprise you at times, but you won’t buy it. Or if you do, it happens and is forgotten so fast you won’t care. SKIP IT
For the occasional theater goer – Maybe you haven’t seen this story before and maybe its simplicity and non-introspective nature will appeal to you. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – If like me you are a Christopher Hunt fan, then save a broken heart and miss him in this one. In fact, just miss it altogether. SKIP IT