Review: The Lover (Sterling Studio Theatre)

The Lover 7

The Lover is a provocative tale of sex and domesticity, playing at Toronto’s Sterling Studio Theatre

Up until now, I had never seen or read a Harold Pinter play. I was vaguely aware of, and intrigued by, his reputation as a dramatist, specifically his penchant for sinister comedies. So it was with some excitement that I made my way out to the Sterling Studio Theatre to see their production of The Lover.

I love the Sterling Studio. It’s an intimate venue which seats, depending on how those seats are arranged, only about thirty to fifty people. That intimacy allows directors to take full advantage of theatre’s unique strengths and Brett Haynes does just that. He introduces us to the characters and their world with what I like to call a soft opening: the actors are on set and in character while the audience takes their seats. Also, the lighting for this production is entirely practical (actual lamps that the actors manipulate instead of overhead stage lighting).

The Lover is a one-act two-hander (chuckle), but the structure of the play suggests four characters—sort of. Let me explain: We have a husband and wife, Richard and Sarah. In the first scene, we can see that they have a pleasant and functional domestic life together. It’s a little stuffy, but not without humour. We are immediately intrigued, though, because they casually discuss mutual infidelities—the whore and the lover.

The whore and the lover turn out to be husband and wife adopting different personae. Conceptually, this play reminded me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; like Albee’s play, this is a darkly comedic drama that explores a psychological game played by two sophisticated—yet emotionally damaged—individuals, where the lines between the game and reality are obscured.

I was amazed by the timelessness of the script given that it was written over fifty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, human themes transcend the barrier of time and all that jazz, but dialogue can sometimes sound dated. Shakespeare’s text still speaks to us, but there’s no denying that the language is not how people are talking now. Amazingly, Pinter’s dialogue doesn’t come across particularly old-timey or even that British.

Justin Mader and Kerri Smith have wonderful chemistry. When the actors’ faces are only a few feet away from you (and there are only two of them), chemistry is vital.

There were moments when I felt Mader’s scenes as the husband persona were stilted, that he came across somewhat false. But, as the play neared its end, I considered the way in which the husband and wife personae are different from those of the whore and lover. The former are very restrained—their conversations too polite; the later interact more naturally and with carnal abandon. It seems fitting that the husband’s speech would seem awkward considering it is his character that (in both personae) has difficulty dealing with their perverse arrangement.

Those with particular sensitivities should be aware of two things that figure prominently in the production: herbal cigarettes and sexual content. The smoke from the cigarettes will, in such a small space, most definitely be quite noticeable. And, though there isn’t any nudity and everything is very tasteful, there are some sexy bits.

This play is all about the relationship between sex and domesticity, animal lust and social facades. If you like character studies that explore social mores, and you enjoy seeing talented actors up close and personal, then catch The Lover before the week is out.

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Photo of Kerri Smith and Justin Mader by Brett Haynes