Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lowest Common Denominator at PAL

Thanks in no small measure to a tour de force performance by Deborah Williams, Dave Deveau's Lowest Common Denominator is a tsunami of a play, alternately buoying and buffeting its audience with wave upon wave of roiling action and intense emotion.

In this Zee Zee Theatre production directed by Cameron Mackenzie, and on at the PAL Theatre until this Sunday, Williams plays Harmony, a 40-something divorced telemarketer raising her seventeen-year-old son, Trevor (Dallas Sauer), and tentatively re-entering the dating pool via an impromptu dinner with her new insurance agent, Peter (an affecting Shawn Macdonald). Harmony's confidence is momentarily shaken on both fronts when first her son (accidentally) and then Peter (clarifyingly) announces he is gay. But Harmony is nothing if not resilient, and soon all three characters find themselves back in her kitchen, very much in their respective cups (signature Harmony line: "They say you really have to meet a gay person to understand them and now, look, I've got two"). So far, so much fun. However, when Harmony, having earlier retired to bed, returns to find Trevor and Peter in a hot and heavy lip-lock, she instantly goes into lioness mode, warning Peter and, by extension, us in the audience that we have no idea what's coming next.

And, indeed, following a very tightly focused and almost classically Aristotelian first half (down to the more or less unified troika of time, place, and action), the second act gets decidedly surreal, opening with Harmony and Peter in caftans, straw hats and sunglasses, sipping from giant coconuts while relaxing on a beach. We soon learn that we're inside Harmony's head, a space to which we will return, and in which she and Peter, in between their improbable and hilarious banter, try to talk rationally about what's best for Trevor. I actually preferred these scenes to the realistic ones they punctuate, in which a year has passed and Trevor, now 18, pursues his liaison with Peter, despite the 30 year age difference. Eventually the two move in with each other, and after initially trying to reconcile herself to the situation, Harmony goes on the attack, threatening to out Peter as a pedophile unless he abandons the relationship.

In Deveau's hands, the battle over Trevor and his well-being is, mercifully, less of a moral issue (the rightness or wrongness of inter-generational sex) than an emotional one. Neither Harmony nor Peter want to be alone. The irony is that in doing battle with each other, they will both end up losing Trevor. My only problem with this equation as the play now stands is that Trevor, as currently written, is something of a cipher; we don't get enough sense of his own agency in making the choices he does and in Sauer's performance I unfortunately couldn't distinguish Trevor's devastation and sense of betrayal at being abandoned by Peter from his anger at his mother for trying to break them up: both come across as so much teenage petulance when, I think, we are meant to understand (at least as retailed by Peter) that Trevor is wise beyond his years.

In part this imbalance is because Harmony and Peter are so well-written and their scenes together--not least the ones inside Harmony's head--so believable. I'd kill to see the two of them reunited in another play set a few years in the future--maybe a reconciliation at Trevor's wedding. With the booze flowing freely again, and maybe a couple of additional characters, I can just imagine the possibilities.


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