How the mighty are fallen. Greatness and its decline is the central theme of Daniel MacIvor’s play, here receiving its European premiere, a portrait of a once revered writer reduced to drunken incoherence and insecurity. The Playwright, a thinly veiled fictionalisation of Tennessee Williams, is in Vancouver for the opening night of his latest play, where his long-suffering Assistant and lover tries to keep him on time and relatively sober while satisfying his whims by hiring him a professional escort as his date for the evening, thus initiating an odd, sharply pointed triangular relationship between three damaged men.
ChÃ© Walker’s production invites the audience into the slightly grubby, appropriately faded grandeur of the Playwright’s hotel room, where MacIvor’s three characters alternately flatter and snipe at one another behind closed doors. With the audience’s feet literally scuffing the carpet, it is the perfect staging for a claustrophobic escalation of passions over two days. As the Assistant, the excellent Russell Bentley combines cutting sardonic wit with an atmosphere of carefully contained disappointment engendered by years of living in his partner’s shadow. Into their established dynamic enters the young rent boy, all swaggering sexuality coating inner emptiness in the capable hands of Toby Wharton.
The omission of names for MacIvor’s protagonists, identified only as the Playwright, the Assistant and the Young Man, implies a nod to the descriptive conventions of the dramatis personae and a simultaneous attempt to evoke archetypes. There is a sense that the pain experienced by these broken men, much like Williams’ broken characters, is not unique to them but symptomatic of the universal pain of being human. As the Playwright tells us that “happy endings are an evil fiction”, we know that these figures will not end well.
The pivotal image that we are offered of the nose-diving Playwright, however, is a slightly hackneyed one. This Williams persona has all the recognised hallmarks of tortured genius, spouting fabulous one-liners, knocking back drinks, veering wildly between demonstrative brilliance and childlike helplessness and impetuosity, speaking of “the voices, the angels, the demons” that fill his head. When glimmers of fading greatness peek through his tattered outer garb of weariness and addiction, MacIvor clearly has fun with the writer’s delight in language, but we rarely get close to the truth of this character’s crippling wound. This is perhaps compounded by the unfortunate fact that last minute stand-in Matthew Marsh has had only a couple of weeks with the script; his characterisation edges dangerously close to caricature, saved by a few moments of devastating vulnerability.
Placing the three protagonists to one side, one of the play’s more charming secondary facets is the love affair that it kindles with theatre as a transporting art form. Wharton’s Young Man sparkles with the wide-eyed wonder of discovering the “magic” of the stage for the first time; the Assistant’s closing speech suggests that what we are left with, after everything else has gone, is the spellbinding power of theatre. While MacIvor’s play, compelling as it is at intervals, may not illuminate anything particularly new about the sad fact of inexorably diminishing brilliance, it does evoke a true passion for theatre and this genre’s unique ability to capture the human condition.