First Time Last Time, on stage in Toronto, features strong performances, weak writing
In the dramatic form, how do we present someone’s life? Does such a story need a beginning, a middle, and an end? Aim for the Tangent Theatre and The Big Smokey Collective’s First Time Last Time playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace delivers some life, but too much story.
There’s a lot to unpack about First Time Last Time. Written and directed by Scott Sharplin, the play recounts the turbulent love story of Airlea (Jenna Lahey) and Ben (Wesley J. Colford) as they fall in love and attempt to stay there.
Airlea is a woman who proudly proclaims her ability to live “in the present,” who LARPS, and even confuses astrology and astronomy. Ben is just starting university, owns a house, and lacks imagination.
There’s no new ground here in terms of characters or outcomes, which is why I was a bit confused by the running time. The show clocks in at two and a half hours with a twenty minute intermission. With regards to content, in my opinion, there was only an hour and a half’s worth of material, and not all of it was all that great.
My feelings about First Time Last Time are difficult to describe. To give some perspective, my guest was not entertained at all, whereas I actually thought it had some solid redeeming qualities.
Colford managed to make Ben somewhat likeable as a character, even as he espoused terrible stereotypes about women and their bodies. He had great chemistry with his co-star, holding his own against Lahey’s powerhouse performance.
For me, the real gem of the evening was Lahey, who is a lot of fun to watch. As Airlea struggles with the pressure to become pregnant and actually want a child, Lahey gives a funny but stressful performance. The realization that the problem is not that she isn’t pregnant but that she doesn’t want to be pregnant is delivered as much through her body language as through Sharplin’s writing. She takes a generic character bordering on caricature and turns her into the highlight of the night. It’s no wonder the start of the second act is my favourite part of the show.
Half-way through the second act, however, I was done with everything: it had out-stayed its welcome so much I became annoyed.
If there’d been a purpose to the ongoing drama, I might have forgiven its length. Without giving too much away, I want to say that I felt like Sharplin had taken everything I dislike about these types of narratives and made sure to run down the entire checklist, including, but not limited to, ongoing sexist stereotypes. For me, Sharplin’s writing seemed derivative, pulling from a tired genre with no unique voice.
With its strong cast, First Time Last Time could easily have coasted on the performances to be a problematic, but okay production. The extra hour, completely unearned, felt to me like it asked a lot of the audience. The characters wanted more time, but the story was done, and anything after a certain point (that I can’t spoil) just reaffirmed it in the worst way possible.
Personally, I would be hard pressed to recommend this play. Sometimes, the mistake in theatre is a refusal to rock the boat. In First Time Last Time, its failure is its refusal to even try.
- First Time Last Time runs until June 21st at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave.)
- Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, PWYCmatinees are Sunday at 2pm
- Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students, seniors, and artsworkers and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 416-504-7529, or online here
Photo of Jenna Lahey and Wesley J. Colford courtesy Chris Walzak