Meta-production Late Night tackles entertainment industry discrimination on Toronto stages
Kat Sandler’s Late Night began life as the winner of the 2014 Toronto Fringe 24-hour playwriting contest. It’s been given a site-specific production by Theatre Brouhaha at the Zoomer Live Theatre and TV studio, decked out as New York’s Early Late Night talk show, where Marty O’Malley (Alon Nashman) is about to give his final performance of 22 years. Hitting 60, he’s been gently pushed out by the producers in favour of a Millennial, Sarah Goldberg (Kat Letwin), his one-time intern and now a successful edgy-raunchy comic in the vein of Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer.
With things already resting on a knife edge of tension, a live-broadcast Freudian slip throws things into utter upheaval. The transition proves to be anything but smooth over the course of the evening, which proves extremely topical in its exploration of ageism, sexism, racism, and homophobia in the entertainment world and the intersectionality between them. It’s also sharply observed, brilliantly performed, funny as hell, and it would be nonsensical to miss it.
Sandler’s strength is her crackling dialogue, and the uniformly excellent actors deliver it with aplomb. The tension between Letwin and Nashman is not only electric, it’s also nuanced and constantly changing; you’re never really sure how much they actually mean to each other. The undercurrent of fear (of failure, of obsolescence) and sadness lends the caustic comedy depth and pathos. There’s some cringe comedy as well, but all the actors are having so much fun that it’s more entertaining than embarrassing.
Letwin as Goldberg cleverly personifies and comments on the difficulty of being a woman in comedy, including pointed jabs about body image, having to represent an entire gender at all times, and the constant assumption of not deserving your success when you’re not the one playing the game on “easy.”
Nigel Downer stirs the pot further as guest Kevin Lee Hicks, a fellow Millenial and scandal-plagued gay black comic. He’s hilarious as his self-aware “Momma Jones” character, a YouTube hit who’s gone on to a movie trilogy and a clear dig at both Martin Lawrence (Big Momma’s House) and Tyler Perry (Madea). As Hicks, he radiates both amused anger and a cool detachment that lets him take control over the mayhem (and a $15,000 bottle of scotch).
The running gag of the shameless abuse of scotch is priceless, though when O’Malley’s wife Vivien Lawrence (Rachel Jones) shows up, things get a little broad and cartoonish with the booze and pills. Jones still lands fresh satirical jabs about being an “older” woman in acting.
The behind-the-scenes characters are equally vital. Michael Musi gets laughs as hapless intern Davey with his pained smile, inability to read the minds of the higher-ups, and bullied embodiment of the lowest link in the food chain. An example of the borderline abusive dues-paying that’s expected in the industry, and overwhelmed by stardom, he proves an instrument in the destruction. Desperately holding it all together is Alanna (Maria Vacratsis), the imperious stage manager, whose brutal takedown of the at-home audience is a showstopper.
We’re the live audience for the production, which makes great use of the site-specific set; the space is plastered with convincing posters for the Early Late Show, and though conditions on stage quickly become absurd, it still feels like a real taping, with camera operators providing a live feed. This could be gimmicky, but instead is strangely unobtrusive.
Instead of distracting our attention, it provides an intriguing dimension to the proceedings: we’re watching actors but also their reactions mediated through the camera. Magnified on the screen, they seem like different people. It’s an out-of-body feeling, reminding us of the intense scrutiny of the public eye. We’re laughing because the network doesn’t stop the show, desperate for the viewership, but we are those viewers. Power also gets visualized via set: the absence of a second host’s chair sends the characters jockeying for position, each at times playing the host, the guest, and the one stuck at the kids’ table.
It’s impossible to address and solve everything about our culture of discrimination in 90 minutes, but the vital questions are here: Who is it “okay” to make fun of, and who is allowed to make fun of whom? What kind of attack comedy is stale, and what’s fresh and edgy? What’s pushing the edge, and what’s going over the cliff? Does all comedy have to tear someone down to make us laugh?
This is absolutely a discussion worth having, especially when it’s so much fun.
Photo of Kat Letwin and Alon Nashman by John Gundy