(Peter Keleghan, Wes Berger, Nora McLellan, Leah Pinsent & William Vickers, Renovations For Six, 2018)
Stage-door.com Review by Christopher Hoile
Renovations For Six by Norm Foster
Directed by Patricia Vanstone
August 11, 2018 (St Catharines, ON)
Veronica: “We are each what we have made of ourselves”
The Foster Festival closes its third season with the world premiere of Renovations for Six, one the funniest and most ingenious plays by Canada’s most produced playwright I have yet seen. Foster has really outdone himself in developing the extraordinarily clever structure of the play and the intricate working out of its plot. He has created three memorable couples, whose interactions are comic in their own distinct ways and whose coming together at the end leads to more than just the fireworks we expected.
The impetus for the plot comes from Grant and Shayna Perkins (Wes Berger and Cosette Derome), who have moved from Vancouver to an unnamed city, likely in Ontario, because Grant has been brought in to manage a large furniture store there. Having left all their friends behind, Shayna, who would like to start her own Pilates business, is unhappy that after six weeks they have made no new friends. At the risk of appearing “needy”, she decides that the only way they can do this is by taking the first move and inviting some the few people they know over for a cocktail party.
Grant invites his senior salesman Wing Falterman and his wife Billie (William Vickers and Nora McLellan) and Shayna invites the leader of the book club she attends, Veronica Dunn, and her husband Maurice Dudet (Leah Pinsent and Peter Keleghan). In swift-moving, overlapping scenes we see how both of these couples react to their invitations. Billie, who has a fervid imagination, convinces Wing that the only reason Wing’s new boss would invite him to a party would be to fire him. Veronica, who is a psychiatrist and considers Shayna an airhead, views the party as a distraction from her worries about her son and her husband. Thus the perky Shayna and her eager husband Grant are unaware that their two sets of guests are approaching their party with no intention of making friends with their hosts.
The structure of the play is so clever because it happens that all three couples are renovating their homes so that all their furniture is covered with drop cloths. Thus, the same covered sofa and chairs can stand in for the living rooms of all three. Because of this a scene at one couple’s house can begin before the previous scene in another couple’s has finished. It is to director Patricia Vanstone’s credit that we are never confused at any time about whose house we are in and whose we are segueing into. In one brilliant sequence all three couples are on stage simultaneously getting ready for the party, with the words of one couple’s conversation echoed by another couple’s in a difference context.
(Peter Keleghan, William Vickers, Cosette Derome, Nora McLellan & Leah Pinsent, Renovations For Six, 2018)
Metaphorically, the relationships of all three couples are also in need of renovation. Grant and Shayna’s sex life has changed and though Grant doesn’t seem to notice, Shayna has started to wonder why Grant suddenly seems interested only in quickies instead of any extended lovemaking. Billie and Wing, who once had a song-and-dance act, have a very happy marriage, but Billie longs to get back into the business, whereas Wing is more contented with a steady income. Maurice and Veronica have the most acrimonious relationship of the three couples. Maurice has quit his high-paying job as an engineer to write a novel, thus leaving Veronica as the sole bread-winner. Rather than encouraging Maurice, she takes every opportunity she gets to ridicule his desire to write. The two are also unable to discuss their son without rancour, a mystery that is only resolved at the end of the play.
The action is neatly divided into two halves. Act 1 consists of the Perkinses conceiving of the party, the others receiving the invitations and preparations of all for the party. Act 2 presents the party itself, with Foster deftly shifting the spotlight from one pair of interlocutors to another and often widening his focus to include the whole group. Quite ingeniously Foster shows us that we have been given three pieces of an explosive puzzle. The question is when and how the pieces will all come together. Director Patricia Vanstone is expert at ratcheting up the tension as we come ever closer to the information finally being revealed.
While Foster is quite careful to give each couple approximately equal stage time, there is no doubt that the most endearing couple of the three is Billie and Wing. Nora McLellan is absolutely hilarious. Not only is her comic timing perfect but her mastery of tone can lend even the simplest comment comic resonance. Her Billie is also the least inhibited of the six characters and rambunctiously says aloud what most people might merely think to themselves. Billie is a great comic creation given a joyously sparkling performance.
William Vickers is also a treat as Wing. Vickers masterfully shows how Wing is easily led by Billie’s imagination until, in spite of his better judgement, he starts to take as fact what had only been Billie’s flight of fancy. But, as any dedicated Foster follower will know, Foster’s plays are not all comedy. Foster gives Wing a beautifully crafted speech in which Wing defends his modest ambition of being the best furniture salesman he can be and his lack of motivation to rise to greater heights. Vickers invests this speech with such passion that it is unexpectedly moving – a portrait of a humble man defending his humbleness from being belittled.
(William Vickers and Nora McLellan, Renovations For Six, 2018)
Peter Keleghan and Leah Pinsent, a couple in real life, are excellent as Maurice and Veronica, whose humour, unlike the warm joking and leg-pulling of Billie and Wing, is filled with acidic comments and put-downs. Pinsent plays Veronica as a hard, embittered woman whose tone of voice seems permanently stuck in sarcasm and who can’t pay a compliment without having it sound like an insult. While Foster makes Veronica the most unlikable character of the six for most of the play, Pinsent also suggests that Veronica’s unpleasant attitude is the result of some inner pain that eats away at her.
Pinsent’s performance is key to helping explain why Keleghan’s Maurice is content to put up with Veronica’s constant insults. Keleghan gives Maurice the weary air of a man who still loves the woman Veronica (“Ronnie”) used to be and is patient and hopeful enough to believe that that the unhappiness that currently defines her will sometime pass.
Cosette Derome plays Shayna Perkins as a bright, positive young woman who is able to think of problems in life as challenges rather than setbacks. Derome, however, is also adept at charting Shayna’s increasing discomfort with her husband’s strangely distant manner towards her. In this, Derome is forced to do the acting for two since Wes Berger as Grant has difficulty making any of his lines sound natural or gestures expressive. In a manner unusual in a comedy, Berger is best when his character is meanest and most aggressive.
In a play about the renovations of rooms and relationships, Peter Hartwell has designed an attractive set that features one huge stick of paint colour-graded chips lodged over the top of the stage and appearing in other places all over the set. The colours happen to be in the dark pink range since one comic factor that links all three couples is that they are unhappy to have painted their living rooms in “Smoky Salmon”.
Renovations for Six has the feel of a modern classic, not just of Norm Foster’s but of Canadian comedy in general. The whole play is so inventive in conception and dialogue that many will find that one viewing is not enough to pick up all its nuances. Friends who have seen the play have been quoting lines from it ever since and the names “Billie” and “Ronnie” have already become shorthand for certain personality types. Be sure to see this world premiere production while you can.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.