by Bill Gaston
Theatre New Brunswick
If there were a two-lane country road running through the Playhouse, on a sunny Saturday about every tenth car going through would pull off into the expensive seats. Folks would get out and amble up onto the stage to see if there were any real bargains. They'd stand near the wonderful white Victorian veranda, look over the piled chairs and candlesticks and the old Hallicrafters shortwave radio, exchange a few words about the weather and the washbucket full of mixed hardware, and then move along to the next Yard Sale sign.
If they didn't stop and look closely, though, they might miss a lot, the way you often do at yard sales. The story behind the stuff out there in the sunshine and draped over the trees might be worth a bit more than the real fake pearls or the Japanese violin.
They'd be missing Theatre New Brunswick's first production of the season, Fredericton writer Bill Gaston's Yard Sale. In it, Gaston opens up the story behind at least one of those thousands of signs you see along country roads in the summer.
Although it is his first play, this doesn't feel like the work of an inexperienced playwright. An intelligent, rich, shapely script, Yard Sale was "workshopped" last summer at the "Brave New Words" festival at the Black Box Theatre at St. Thomas University and has been shaped and tightened since until it's dense, funny, fast-paced and full of potential for a couple of resourceful actors and an inventive director, all of which it seems to have found.
That's not to say that it's flawless: for one thing, if you try to describe the plot (or, rather, the situation we find out about in the course of the evening), you'll find yourself sounding pretty silly. In outline, the events of the play sound like a recipe for disaster. It's a two-person play about "male bonding," informed by the "men's movement." A man finds out about an affair between his wife and his best friend, the friends argue endlessly, get drunk together, fight, talk about sex, discuss impotence and infidelity and genitalia, make up, and all ends happily. It sounds like 48 Hours meets Oprah: "Men in midlife crisis and the buddies who sustain them." No, thanks.
In fact, however, the intelligence and depth of the script makes up for -- and even capitalizes on -- the silliness of the events. Gaston's script makes wonderful fun of the "men's movement" and, at the same time, the endless, facile cliches of New-Age self-help and self-realization books. It helps us understand some complex realities, even while they're being voiced by a couple of characters it's pretty hard to believe in (though we come to like them both very much).
And it's densely and rewardingly written. Gaston plays variations on themes the way a composer might. Patterns of reference -- to "juice," for instance, or "honesty" -- are introduced and recur, come back in new forms, bounce around like leitmotifs in a Wagner opera, and reward your attention.
Director Miles Potter skilfully structures the evening so that the movements around the stage, the physical deployment of bodies and voices, not only make perfect sense, but also shapes and varies the intensity of the dialogue entertainingly from peak to peak (no easy task in a two-person show).
And both actors manage to create rich and complex characters, physically as well as psychologically, out of the wealth of material Gaston's script gives them. Generally, their comic timing is spot on, and the audience at the preview Thursday night laughed frequently and left smiling. Booth Savage's Spike is especially tight: I thought Richard Donat occasionally had trouble with the shape of some of Kenneth's speeches, but that may come together as the play runs. In general, they're a fine ensemble, even though Savage looks awfully young for his role as veteran of a twenty-year marriage, Donat's limp is even more inconsistent than the script allows for. They're energetic, uninhibited and disciplined, and I enjoyed their interplay.
If there's a serious structural problem with the script -- and thus the production -- it's with the ending, which seems to belie some of the work done earlier to get us to take these two troubled guys seriously while we're laughing. Savage's immersion in the pain of Spike's crisis was so thorough that I suspected, by the beginning of the second act, that there might be a good deal more wrong with him than a midlife crisis that might have blown over by the next morning. The play, I thought, might be hinting at going beyond the obvious issues. I was wrong.
There are also some difficulties with the imagined setting: a good deal of the exposition of what's going on comes as both characters spend some time talking to folks stopping by the yard sale, out in the general direction of the audience. It never seemed to me to be a fully imagined scene. It wasn't as clear as it might have been how many of these visitors there were at any one time, and where they were. It's worth focusing on that sort of detail.
All in all, though, Yard Sale is worth seeing, and even worth thinking about. It's a sort of sexually explicit and very contemporary Waiting for Godot. A guy thing.