To bed, Mr. Foster
‘On a First Name Basis’ contrived, sentimental, utterly predictable
“On a First Name Basis,” written by Canadian playwright Norm Foster, playing at the Victoria Playhouse, tells an unlikely story involving a world-famous spy novelist named David Kilbride and his housekeeper, Miss Lucy Hopperstaad. Kilbride writes spy novels with titles like “The Spanish Arrangement” and “The Irish Plan,” which should give you a big hint about the type of play he inhabits.
Where do these two characters live you may ask? Well I’m not sure. It seems to be some undefined land that has a similar kind of class system to Britain pre-1950.
Kilbride is cool about someone being gay, so my guess is we are not in Saudi Arabia. Are we in Canada? I don’t know. I gather Mr. Foster leaves place ambiguous so his play can inhabit theatres anywhere from Tallahassee to Timbuktu.
Here’s the plot: Our spy novelist decides one day that he must know the intimate details of his housekeeper’s life, after employing her for 28 years. The reason for his sudden desire will unfold like most plot points in this play — like the sound of a loud thud on concrete. It seems Miss Hopperstaad, while cleaning Mr. Kilbride’s toilets for 28 years, has developed warm and fuzzy feelings for her employer. And so what happens next is he plies her with copious amounts
of wine and scotch, and then more scotch, and she then (naturally, as would happen) passes out, and the remainder of the play is a kind of avant-garde thing — an hour and 50 minutes of glorious silence, punctuated by snoring.
Sadly I’m kidding. That would have been bearable. What really happens is that she also suddenly shows an interest in getting to know Kilbride and they get talking and talking and talking.
Oh, boy, do they talk, for two long hours! Having to sit through this contrived, sentimental, utterly predictable claptrap, where cancer and the death of a child are shamelessly thrown in as plot points in between a few inane jokes, is, in fact, a torturous experience.
Lee J. Campbell as Kilbride miraculously finds a shred of something in this script to hang a credible performance on. He shows some spark. Martha Irving as Hopperstaad does not. Her performance is stiff and unbelievable, both physically and emotionally, and her rendition of the effects of the copious amounts of alcohol the two drink together is, to put it gently, lacking in technical finesse.
Irving isn’t helped much by the fact neither director Robert MacLean nor associate director Melissa Mullen (two directors for a two-handed play?) saw fit to ask her to remove her apron in the second act. You know, get a bit looser once all the deeply buried (but utterly invisible) love and lust supposedly come to the fore? Maybe she could even kick off a shoe or two? Get closer than six feet to the man she has supposedly been pining for 28 years?
There is virtually no movement on stage, so if two people sitting in attractive red chairs (thank scenic designer W. Scott MacConnell for those) babbling on about their lives for two hours is your cup of tea, by all means see this play.
Recurring problems with play choice seem to constantly inhibit the Victoria Playhouse, which begs the question why the position of artistic director has gone unfilled for four years. This is a taxpayer-funded, notfor-profit public theatre, not a family business, and it needs to start being run as such.
First order of the day should be to hire someone who knows what a good play looks like. Because it’s long past time to put Mr. Foster to bed.
“On a First Name Basis”, now playing at the Victoria Playhouse, features Lee J. Campbell and Martha Irving.