by Michael Healey
Directed by Richard Greenblatt
starring John Dolan, Peter Donaldson,
Marie-Helene Fontaine, Peter MacNeill
at Tarragon Theatre until February 10
30 Bridgman Avenue/416-531=1827

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

It is a shame that Plan B, the new play by Michael Healey, was not written and produced in 1976. His story of four politicians (two Anglophone and two Francophone) who meet in a Hull hotel conference room shortly after Quebec's separation from Canada has been endorsed, to hammer out a once-and-for-all compromise between the distinct cultures, falls far short of the political eruption he seems to have been aiming for.

What at first appears to be a satire, and maybe even an allegory, dissipates into a protracted series of repetitive scenes that lumber into and out of too many extended blackouts (the set design by Glen Charles Landry needs serious re-examination) with little of consequence to say. A teasing relationship between the Francophone woman (Marie-Helene Fontaine) and one of the Anglophone men (Peter Donaldson) threatens to become interesting -- this is where I spent the early part of the evening investigating allegorical possibilities -- but like the central story, this sub-plot is about nothing more than what it says it is about and, sadly, that is not very much.

The audience reacts best to the few topical comments scattered throughout. In the opening scene, preceded by a dumb show of a "square dance" that helps only to foreshadow the clumsy structure to follow, the politicians are reviewing their media 'leak list'. The audience's laugh is loud, perhaps made the more potent by that day's news leak about the Walkerton Report. An hour or so later, we are told that Disney has made a bid to take over P.E.I. Another cry of laughter. But between such jokes, there is far too much filler where there should be substance.

It is not that Healey has a lack of issues to confront. He asks how long the Francophone community can hold to its defense of humiliation, the key ingredient and irritant in the Parizeau referendum. He toys with the notion that both Quebec and Ottawa are possible and willing targets of an American takeover. (He deals with this plot too lightly to suggest that it be of essential concern.)

However, he sounds more at home with the flirting and courting of the sexes. And so the horny Anglo, speaking atrocious French (and this gets the loudest laughs of all, as such humour has managed to do for so many Toronto audiences for more than thirty years that I know of) goes after and beds the sassy Francophone femme. Is the attraction between them based on cultural differences? Does he find the roll of her 'r' just too sexy to resist? Does his repressed and adolescent notion of foreplay turn her on? Does either of these skilled politicos think for more than five minutes about where they are and what they are doing?

Perhaps if Healey had surrendered the national themes for a sex comedy, or if he had found a metaphor to ground the predictable story of Lise Frechette and Michael Fraser, Plan B would generate discussion or reflection for more than a few minutes following the final blackout. As it is, the play looks and sounds as though it is mid-way through its development.

The cast of four is hampered by the stop-start nature of the staging. There are far too many scenes, each preceded by furniture rearrangements that demand a careful rethink, and the musical choices that accompany these changes serve only to compound the lack of forward motion that dulls the production. Peter MacNeill, as Senator Colin Patterson, plays without strain and to greatest effect. As a nasty-mouthed senator, he spews language that is both cliché-riddled and implausible, but MacNeill finds a character to play. His late-in-the-evening monologue is delivered as well as such writerly intrusions can be, but his is a canny portrayal of a politician who sees much more than he reveals.

Peter Donaldson and Marie-Helene Fontaine never quite ignite, but they are often saddled with playing attitudes rather than people. And since they swing between political and personal scenes, a lack of any knowledge of who these people are makes caring for them or their feelings largely impossible. Donaldson is not helped by being given a telephone conversation as his turnaround (when writers have to reveal climactic moments through one-way phone calls, we are usually made aware that there are still writing problems to solve) and the playwright has deprived Fontaine of much credibility because she ceases to exist as a political equal after she entertains the sexual advances of her Anglo opponent.

Plan B is written in both English and French. The actors shift between both languages as the characters might themselves alternate in the real world. (Subtitles are flashed above the set throughout.) But the gimmick is little more than theatrical decoration which, like the play itself, promises so much more at the outset.

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