Review: Sextet (Tarragon Theatre)

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The Tarragon Theatre presents Morris Panych’s consistently crisp and clever play Sextet in Toronto

Morris Panych’s Sextet (at the Tarragon Theatre) starts as a love letter to the Awful British Sex Farce — the kind of play where half-naked women run in and out of hotel rooms and everyone has sex with everyone else’s wives — but that’s just the playwright luring you in. His story of a string sextet trapped in a suburban motel by a blizzard runs much deeper, exploring identity, repression and neurosis, and how all three interact with relationships, both romantic and sexual. Over the course of a night and a day, conversations lead to confessions, confidences lead to doubts, frictions lead to orgasms — and it’s not entirely clear that every member of the sextet will survive to see the concert.

Panych, as playwright and director, has crafted six characters who are nasty: to various degrees unloveable, selfish, deluded and narcissistic — yet all six characters are imbued with genuine warmth, and this warmth is what drew me into the story. The all-star cast helps, with Rebecca Northan and Damien Atkins doing especially heavy lifting. Northan’s tough-cookie second violinist will grow on you in a tremendous way, both the antagonist and hero of the piece, while Atkins — serving, one suspects, as a Panych insert — is the closest we get to a narrator, a twitchy closet case who perfectly straddles the extremely thin line between sympathetic and distasteful.

Ken MacDonald’s set is a particular accomplishment, assisted considerably by Kimberly Purtell’s lighting: the walls never move an inch, yet Panych can make those rooms grow and shrink at will, from claustrophic closets right to gaping expanses that swallow people right up. Later scenes set in the blizzard, by the pool, and inside a Schoenberg chamber piece (just go along with me on this, okay?) are just as interesting to watch, and equally evocative in design and execution.

The writing is consistently crisp and clever, but over the course of 90 minutes, I found this wearing thin: the plot takes a good long while to really get going, and the ending takes about as long to crank down. There are some solid belly-laughs, and some interesting observations about obsession and desire — sexual, personal, professional and material — but this is also one of the piece’s speed bumps: at several points, it feels like the actors are leaning in, inviting us to hear a secret. The secret to love, to religion, to music, to life itself. This secret will be so important, and so enriching, that a lighting change is called for.

And the trouble is that, after all that buildup, my reaction to the secret itself was usually along the lines of “…that’s it?” These observations aren’t objectionable, but they’re the sorts of things you might find in a fortune cookie, or on a poster featuring a cat. I may just be too cynical for this to work on me, but I expected more.

All of this being said, I had a marvellous time: this is an amazing cast — can I blubber for a minute about how much I adored Laura Condlln’s second cellist, or Bruce Dow’s eccentric old biddy? — and even though the pacing wobbles a little, the material is crisp and fresh throughout. This isn’t Panych’s best work, but not-his-best Panych is still head and shoulders above most other playwrights and directors, and you won’t regret spending an hour and a half trapped in a shitty motel with this Sextet.

Details

  • Sextet plays through December 14th at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. (30 Bridgman Ave., near Bathurst and Dupont)
  • Tickets are $55; discounts are available for students and seniors, see website for details.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-531-1827), or in-person at the box office.
  • Be aware that this is a general-admission production. Arrive early for best seats.
  • This show includes brief nudity and frank treatment of human sexuality.

Photograph of Laura Condlln (seated) and Jordan Pettle by Cylla von Tiedemann.