Toronto’s Hart House Theatre opens its season with George F. Walker’s play We The Family
Hart House’s world-premier production of George F. Walker’s We The Family is polished and entertaining. Brandon Kleiman’s minimalist, multi-tiered set is an urban showcase with steel girders set against a cityscape backdrop. Some very colourful characters pop out of this inner-city jungle and their interactions are swift and punchy. This looks and feels like it wants to be a musical, and I may have liked it more had it been.
Three generations of two ethnically-divergent families, Chinese and Jewish, come together for a marriage. We never see this wedding, but it’s a vivid character in this story: a “too experimental” attempt by the groom’s mother to unite their two cultures with a fusion of Jewish and Mandarin. We are told, repeatedly, that the décor and cuisine left quite an impression on the bewildered guests. (Imagine: sweet and sour matzah balls.)
These characters are cartoonish and each of them is a hot mess. The groom’s father is a shrewd, unscrupulous “ex-Jew” businessman. A confrontational Jewish grandmother revels in stirring up trouble with her culturally insensitive rants. The mother of the bride sees her Chinese heritage as a badge of honour and it drives a wedge between herself and her angst-ridden, drug-dealing daughter. Walker has thrown into the works a Palestinian love interest and a Russian mistress with gangster connections.
The newly-weds are kidnapped and the two families must deal with this and a multitude of financial, emotional and cultural issues. There is infidelity, arson, suicide and murder! This play’s body count is surprisingly high.
The script has constant one-liners that land well and the actors are, across the board, entertaining. I had my favourites, of course.
For me, John Cleland’s jaded tycoon was the most consistently compelling presence on stage. He’s a man used to be being in control and I’ve always been drawn to characters who, eschewing moral conventions, try to get shit done.
I also enjoyed Sarah Murphy-Dyson’s neurotic, alcoholic would-be adulteress with murderous fantasies. She, just like her wheeling-dealing husband, has no illusions about fidelity or moral obligation.
Renée Haché as a high-fashion, socialite “psychiatrist” (an obvious fraud) is quite a treat. She’s not as developed as the other characters, but she’s very endearing with her outlandish outfits and blasé attitude, peddling prescription meds out of her purse and taking selfies at a funeral.
While this show has all the right moves, it never felt substantial. I chuckled at the situations, but it was hard to invest in these characters that are so perfectly on cue. For dark comedy to really grab me, I need to feel less safe. If the danger is removed, where’s the edge?
Walker’s script and the aesthetic of the Andrea Wasserman’s energetic production conspire to distance me from any sort of reality. Lodged in a place of comfort, everything just feels like antics.
If you have a taste for cynical and irreverent humour, death and depravity with a drum-roll, this darkly comedic culture clash will be right up your alley.
- We The Family is playing until October 2 at the Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle)
- Check to show listings for specific days and showtimes
- Ticket are $28 (Adults), $17 (Seniors) and $15 (Students), with $12 Students tickets every Wednesday
- Tickets can be purchase in person at the UofTtix Box Office, online at uofttix.ca, or by phone (416.978.8849)
Photo of Phoebe Hu, Sarah Murphy-Dyson and John Cleland by Scott Gorman