Written and Directed by Daniel Brooks
Starring Tamsin Kelsey and Guillermo Verdecchia
at Tarragon Theatre until April 7
30 Bridgman Avenue/416-531-1827

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

"The Good Life" is Daniel Brooks' new and not very good play. Addressing early middle-age anxiety by chronicling the lives of three couples -- two in the forty something range and a younger couple to remind us that times never stop changing -- the playwright is at his best with smug throwaways and far less assured when he shifts to deeper truths. That these deeper insights are also revealed in extended asides to the audience (where the characters stand at microphones that suggest stand-up comedy routines) makes for a cool and increasingly removed world.

The central characters are Dan and Gina. We meet them as they are being interviewed by Eve, a young and brash lightweight journalist. We learn that the couple is blissfully content in their marriage and their separate professional lives. We also learn that they share a similar short-and-sharp form of put-down as they describe their personal world and the larger one in which they operate.

Next, we meet their close friends, Chris and Mary, a pair who are always on the verge of separating because he refuses to say, "I love you." Mary's mounting discontent is explained in the play's first microphone-enhanced monologue. And it is mid-way through this self-conscious bit of writing that the earlier cleverness loses its lustre and we begin to recognize that the remaining two hours are probably going to be more, much more of the same.

It's damn hard to get drawn into a world wherein the characters have everything that they want, both in personal and material terms. And even when Dan opens a scene with the news that he is leaving Gina for the young interviewer, we fail to respond because he is whining about matters that he should be old enough to deal with in a more interesting way. What does he want from his startled wife, I asked myself, and please let this not be a scene ripped from far too many films about men who prefer jerking off to more meaningful interaction, I thought.

Alas, Brooks is quite focused on himself and his sudden realization that success and happy family may not be quite enough.

Sadly, the very good staging counts for little because there's not much on the stage to take in. The sameness of the scenes restricts the actors, both emotionally and physically. They literally have nowhere to go. By the second act, Brooks, both as writer and director, has run out of ideas on all sides and he leaves the world of brittle humour for one of maudlin self-confession.

Tamsin Kelsey is striking as Gina. Slightly remote in her emotional presence, she is an excellent partner for Guillermo Verdecchia's Dan. (They are real life partners and Verdecchia is Brooks' long-time co-writer.) Kelsey's character prevents the actor from much dramatic growth because she has nowhere to go on the page. The plot contrivance of her husband's departure is abrupt and presented in an improbable fashion. As a result, Kelsey is forced to switch gears, but without the text to help her, the change is awkward and incomplete. Verdecchia is brilliant with the aside. Quick and acerbic, without being condescending, he plays the first scene with ease and wonderful control. But from his 'I'm leaving' scene on, he is drained of the energy that first propelled him. And while we can understand what the price might be for walking out on a marriage, the actor is left without much more than now-I'm-happy-now-I'm-not scenes that reinforce his shameless self-absorption.

Tracy Wright, as Mary, is all right, if annoyingly blunt too much time of the time. Her revelation of having had an affair with a female friend plays as though she was reporting picking the temperature, and her inability to actually leave her husband makes her repeated appearances less than welcome. Bob Martin, as her husband, is a gifted comic with droll one-liners, but anyone who saw him in The Drowsy Chaperone will not be seeing anything new here. There's no doubt that he has style, but whether or not he can act a role rather than send up a predictable type is not yet clear.

Waneta Storms and Luke Kirby, as the young people who have affairs with Dan and Gina respectively, are suitably attractive and aggressively youthful in their disregard for social pieties. Storms is another actor whose past work obliterates any chance at a new character here. Her vocal qualities are no different than in the recent Clout, for instance, and her body language is the same from role to role. Kirby, who was among the unlucky cast members of this season's Habitat, manages a smarmy kind of sexual come-on without falling into caricature. He is spared the monotony of the others by being given a clever interview scene in the second act. His handling of the tension and the comedy lets us in on the fact that Kirby deserves material that permits him to play something other than a dark-and-dirty adolescent.

"'The Good Life' is an unfinished work of fiction," is how Brooks end his director's notes in the programme. I suppose it's reassuring to read this, to know that the playwright is also aware that his work is still not complete. But this may also be disingenuous in the way that apologia can try to pre-empt any critical response. Like much of the play itself, this coda reflects a degree of self-satisfaction that is as overbearing as it is unearned.

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