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review

There’s no ice-breaking conversation when the curtain rises on the squabbling family at the centre of this Québécois play, newly translated and adapted into an English-Canadian context by Bobby Theodore.Dahlia Katz/Handout

  • Title: Public Enemy
  • Written by: Olivier Choinière, translated and adapted by Bobby Theodore
  • Director: Brendan Healy
  • Actors: Rosemary Dunsmore, Jonathan Goad, Michelle Monteith
  • Company: Canadian Stage
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Continues to Oct. 8

Canadian Stage has hosted many dinner parties on its stages over the years – but none quite like the one that takes place in Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright Olivier Choinière’s Public Enemy.

There’s no icebreaking conversation when the curtain rises on the squabbling family at the centre of this Quebecois play, newly translated and adapted into an English-Canadian context by Bobby Theodore.

Seventysomething matriarch Elizabeth (Rosemary Dunsmore) and her middle-aged children James (Jonathan Goad), Daniel (Matthew Edison) and Melissa (Michelle Monteith) are already a few bottles of wine into the evening and on to the dessert-and-disputation course.

“We’re going to talk about grown-up stuff now, it’ll be boring,” says Melissa, sending her preteen daughter, Olivia (Maja Vujicic), off to Grandma’s TV room with James’s teenage son, Tyler (Finley Burke).

What unfolds next is certainly not boring, but rather, carefully orchestrated conversational chaos in director Brendan Healy’s fine-tuned production.

The four adults talk over each other about which CBC announcers are most “articulate” and which Globe and Mail columnists are most “objective”; then arguments over news items both topical and dated, and the merits of Canadian politicians past and present, are layered over each other.

There’s way more information coming out of this quartet of characters’ mouths than possible for an audience to take in or process – especially as subject matter turns towards the lurid and the paranoid.

This is argument-as-entertainment, and it reminds you of discourse among the very online. It doesn’t take too long, however, for the adult siblings to start fighting over what they really care about. This turns out to be, naturally, mom and her money (disguised as a fight over mom and what’s best for her).

Public Enemy, in a clever theatrical twist, also lets the audience see what is going on in the other room with the kids. The play rewinds 13 minutes at one point and Julie Fox’s set revolves to show the two young cousins seething in mostly silent tension as they engage in a power struggle over the remote control and the couch – one that threatens to explode into violence.

When Tyler tries to scare Olivia by talking about a rat hidden in the couch, I immediately thought of British playwright Harold Pinter’s half-jesting statement that his comedies of menace were about “the weasel under the cocktail table.” But then a real rodent shows up not too long afterward in a surreal scene involving an overconfident squirrel visiting grandma Elizabeth’s balcony.

Public Enemy, in a clever theatrical twist, also lets the audience see what is going on in the other room with the kids.Dahlia Katz/Canadian Stage

Acting without words in a realistic drama is a lot to ask of the younger actors, but Burke and Vujicic acquit themselves well in their scenes – even though their work is being compared and contrasted with that of a real powerhouse group of well-known actors. Hard to pick the best of that bunch, but Goad’s hoser portrait of the bullying eldest sibling, James, was right on the money like the late Queen.

At one point, James confiscates his son’s smartphone and comes back into the dining room holding it over his head: “You know what this is?” he declaims. “The end of civilization as we know it.”

That made me think of a famous scene involving the destruction of a cellphone in God of Carnage, French playwright Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play about a pair of parents meeting for dinner – well, hors d’oeuvres and drinks, technically – that was translated and adapted into British and American contexts by Christopher Hampton.

That play, too, was a satirical dark comedy about the thin veneer of civilization. Which is really what most dinner party plays are, no, often using a family as the stand in for society?

Watching Public Enemy in the Berkeley Street Theatre, I recalled many of the other dramas in that genre that I had seen in this space – from Omnium Gatherum, an early War on Terror satire by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, to Festen, David Eldridge’s stage adaptation of a Danish film.

Some more famous recent plays with dinner parties at their centre include The Humans, Disgraced and August: Osage County, which won or on the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2008, 2013 and 2016. So a lot of tough competition – though in truth, there aren’t that many Canadian entries in the genre.

Public Enemy is ultra-Canadian with references to media personalities as varied as CBC host Matt Galloway and ex-Walrus editor Jonathan Kay. Choinière’s original play went similarly deep into the weeds of Quebec society – but rang a little truer. It’s not that there aren’t some families in the rest of Canada that are Cancon obsessives, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that this family was that family.

Indeed, there are a few references to the assimilation of immigrants and language concerns that, despite Theodore’s best attempts to adapt the play, felt adapted. I also felt the passage of time since 2015, when I thought better of the world and thought this play was too cynical upon seeing the premiere production in Montreal. It’s really hard to write on the pulse owing to the pandemic.