When Happy Birthday Benjamin Holloway opened at the Toronto Fringe Festival , we saw the titular character sitting behind the piano, playing what sounds more like a melancholic tune and less like a celebratory sing-along, and things became somber, unsettling, and a little off-key.
The play starts with Ben (Evan Mackenzie) sitting alone in his apartment playing the same unfinished melody over and over again. His roommate and best friend, Aaron (Chase Jeffels) walks in wearing a kimono. He recounts an overly exaggerated story about how he suspects being drugged by his Tinder date — an excuse for forgetting about his friend’s birthday. Ben, in a passive aggressive manner, waves it off.
The response is familiar. We’ve all been there: the awkward, guilt-tripping confrontation of forgetting a good friend’s birthday; the even worse feeling of neglect and disappointment when the people that matter to us most forget about this day.
The tension between the two characters is established within those first few minutes and I anticipated what next.
Happy Birthday Benjamin Holloway is not just about a birthday celebration gone wrong, nor it is only about the little ways that friendships have disappointed us. Beneath the surface, the show is about memory and how the past continues to haunt the present in more ways than one; it’s about unhealed wounds; and it’s about the messy connections between people that fate and time (cruelly) intertwine together.
The actors played off each other very well, giving more life to the play’s written dialogue. Aaron (Chase Jeffels) and Ben’s interactions were sharp. With the introduction of Cameron, a new strange friend, Mike Ricci gives a memorable performance. His depiction of Cameron is both dark and humorous, ingenious and unnerving.
While the dialogue holds its comedic tenor, I found that the narrative of the play fell short, and in some ways it seemed underdeveloped. I left the show with more questions than answers.
Even more so, the motivations and backstories of each character felt lacking; incomplete in the same way that Ben’s song remained a work-in-progress. Aaron’s trauma is only explored just below the surface, leaving his character unexplored and in some ways, problematic.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those who are still interested in seeing this show, because there are twists and turns that all unfolded abruptly at the play’s climax. In the end, Happy Birthday Benjamin Holloway brought the lives of its three leading characters together in the most unexpected of ways. But to get there, it was bumpy.
- Happy Birthday Benjamin Holloway plays at Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (79A Saint George St)
- Tickets are $12. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1026), from the Fringe Club at Scaddling Court, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Content Warnings: Mature language and is not recommended for persons under 14 years of ago
- This venue is accessible.
- Friday 7th July, 01:15pm
- Sunday 9th July, 06:45pm
- Monday 10th July, 08:30pm
- Tuesday 11th July, 10:30pm
- Wednesday 12th July, 03:30pm
- Friday 14th July, 09:15pm
- Sunday 16th July, 04:00pm
Photo of Chase Jeffels, Evan Mackenzie, and Mike Ricci by Emily Cully