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Saturday, 11/14/98



Theatre Critic

Slight comedy feels like TV sitcom

Only its strong cast saves this new play about a dysfunctional family Christmas.

Written by Brian Drader
Directed by Katherine Kaszas
Starring Marion Gilsenan, Geoffrey Bowes and Glyn Thomas
At Toronto's Canadian Stage, on Thursday
Rating: **

The Norbals, a slight comedy that opened at Canadian Stage on Thursday, starts with its own up-beat little jingle composed by Moxy Früvous in the key of a TV theme song. It's fair warning: you're in for another evening of television unsuccessfully disguised as theatre.

This new play from Winnipeg actor and writer Brian Drader sets up a family of misfits and brings them together for Christmas. Eldest brother Danny (Geoffrey Bowes) is an irascible yuppie married to a Martha Stewart-type named Penny (Janet-Laine Green). They are bankrupt, but are still paying to fly the whole family to Toronto for the holidays. In Calgary, brother Bee (Glyn Thomas) isn't really a brother anymore: she's a transvestite ready for the big chop with the support of her Jewish lesbian girlfriend Connie (Kelli Fox). Brother Randall (Tom Barnett) is a Buddhist and narcoleptic who falls asleep at the slightest sign of stress -- like the prospect of introducing his high-powered new girlfriend Samantha (Lynne Cormack) to the family.

Meanwhile in Winnipeg, baby brother Sean (Richie Favalaro) is a secret drug addict who still lives at home with the folks. Father Allen (Dan MacDonald) is a harmless eccentric while Mother Frieda (Marion Gilsenan) is a non-stop talker who oversees this brood with genuine liberalism. That'll be Winter Solstice they're celebrating this year, out of respect for the Jew and the Buddhist.

As these descriptions suggest, The Norbals is a play based largely on comic situation. For all their trendy dysfunctions, there's neither emotional complexity nor significant social satire in these characters and little complication to the plot: Sean takes an overdose on Christmas Eve.

The play might work as pleasantly familiar family comedy with a black edge if Drader had some idea of how to build scenes in theatre. But instead, he hops from one brief filmic encounter to the next: there are lots of obvious laughs here, but no scene ever lasts long enough to establish verbal hilarity or physical outrageousness. And when Drader turns serious, without any of the emotional depth needed for real drama, the effect is excruciatingly sentimental. Director Katherine Kaszas is left scratching her head, puzzling why this comedy just never seems to get going. Her overproduced show is splashed all over Julia Tribe's flimsy set, the perpetually mobile backdrop that Drader's many scene-changes require. The saving grace is the cast, a uniformly strong ensemble of actors who cover amiably and enthusiastically for the playwright, each one carving a monologue, an outburst, an eccentricty or a running joke into a reliable source of laughs. Their work makes The Norbals watchable -- just like TV.

The Norbals plays at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto while a different production of the same script is running at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg. Both continue until Dec. 12.

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