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Friday, July 7, 2017
The second production of Soulpepper on 42nd Street, the month-long showcase of Canadian theater now at Signature Center is Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel. Although three films have been made from the novel, this is the first stage version. I haven’t read the novel and don’t remember the film version I saw long ago, so I can’t comment on the relative fidelity to the source. However, as an independent work, it held my interest for its creative storytelling, innovate staging and fine cast. Gregory Prest plays the protagonist, Philip Carey, the clubfooted orphan who reluctantly gives up becoming an artist for the more practical choice of a career in medicine. His progress in life is repeatedly threatened by his obsessive desire for Mildred Rogers (Michelle Monteith), a manipulative waitress he meets, who treats him horribly again and again. [This is the role that made Bette Davis a movie star.] As her abusive treatment continued, I could barely stifle the image of Lucy forever pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. After many misadventures, mostly caused directly or indirectly by Mildred, Philip eventually is liberated from his obsession and finds direction and contentment. Press and Monteith are both very good. The other ten hardworking cast members play multiple roles adroitly, play incidental music on various instruments and move the set elements around for each scene. Lorenzo Savoini's set features a bright red square in the center of the stage floor, a brick back wall and cleverly multipurpose stage furniture repositioned as needed. Erika Connor’s period costumes are attractive. The direction by Albert Schultz, Soulpepper’s artistic director, provides many creative touches. To describe them would eliminate the surprise, so I won’t say more. The pace is a bit slow in the first act, but picks up after intermission. Overall, it was a worthwhile evening. Running time: two hours 40 minutes including intermission.
The Canadians have invaded New York and established a foothold on 42nd Street. More specifically, Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company has taken over the entire Pershing Square Signature Center for the month of July and has brought along seven plays, plus concerts, cabaret and other events to show their mettle. Judging from the two productions I have seen so far, we are the better for it.
Soulpepper led off with what they are billing as “the most successful Canadian play of the last decade,” Ins Choi’s family dramedy about a Korean immigrant family running a convenience store in a gentrifying Toronto neighborhood. Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) comes across as the Korean-Canadian answer to Archie Bunker. Umma (Jean Hoon), his long-suffering wife, does not get much stage time, which is probably appropriate to her role in the family. Daughter Janet (Rosie Simon) is 30 years old, highly assimilated and single, working as a photographer, but still living at home. Her brother Jung (playwright Choi) ran off with the contents of the family safe when he was 16 after a violent argument with his father that left Jung in the hospital for a few days. There are also four customers all played by Ronnie Rowe Jr.
The early scenes are hilarious, especially one in which Appa tries to teach Janet how to detect a potential thief. His rules have something to offend everyone including blacks, fat people, lesbians and others, but his presentation of them is irresistibly funny. A scene between father and daughter during which she complains over her exploitation and he berates her for ingratitude is quite moving. His failure to interest Janet into taking over the store leads him to be tempted by a lucrative offer to buy out the store. Next we learn that Umma has been secretly meeting her son at her church. Once Jung reappears at the store, you can no doubt figure out the rest.
Lee is a force of nature as Appa. Simon captures all the right notes for the daughter. Hoon, alas, does not have much opportunity to make an impression. Choi is a stronger playwright than actor. Rowe is wonderful in creating four distinct roles.
The set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie create a realistic foundation. Weyni Mingesha directs with assurance.
There are many objective grounds on which I could find fault, but the play overcame them all with its heartwarming, universal look at the immigrant family experience and intergenerational conflicts. The situations occasionally veer close to sitcom humor (indeed, the play has been adapted as a television series) and become predictable, but the execution is so flawless that resistance is futile. I had a good time. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.