Review: Jitters (Stage Centre Productions)

Photograph of Heather Goodall, Tony Rein and James Lukie by Fabio Saposnik.

Stage Centre is bent on giving you a fun evening with its Toronto theatre production of Jitters.

Jitters, playing at the York Woods Library Theatre, is a multi-layered, tricky beast. The play is literally about three afternoons in the life of a theatrical production: the final rehearsal, the buildup to opening, and the day after. But beneath the surface, author David French has written a twisted sort of love note to Canadian theatre in the 1970s, and it’s the willingness of Michael James Burgess’ cast to engage with that subtext which makes this Stage Centre Productions mount really shine.

It’s easy to treat Jitters as a simple backstage comedy, and the company—in particular Tony Rein as the twitchy Phil Mastorakis—do excellent comedic work. But the real delights of French’s script come out in the other leads: Heather Goodall as an actress who ascended to Broadway, flopped, and has had to return to Toronto; Brad Emes as the nervous writer, desperate to move beyond the shadow of his first success; and above all else, James Lukie as a “lifer” character actor who sabotages his own work, preferring to remain a big fish in a tiny, Canadian pond. These three deliver the dramatic core of the show with admirable talent and restraint.

My companion found that Will van der Zyl’s harried director grew on him, becoming more visible and active as the other characters grew more deranged and desperate. He also enjoyed Sylvester Pilgrim’s martinet of a stage manager and Kate McDonald’s assistant—who often appears to be the only sane person in the room.

The costumes department—coordinated by Ms. Goodall—gives the cast a wonderful pastiche of the late 70s: bellbottoms and chest hair for the men, Farrah Fawcett haircuts and mid-length skirts for the women. Mr. Van der Zyl’s first-act leisure suit is perfect, yet so atrocious (an explosion in a polyester tartan factory?) that he practically deserves danger pay.

This attention to period detail continues in the props department, where Margaret and Shannon Breedon have provided enormous crystal ashtrays, potted ferns and the other standard accoutrements of 1970s living rooms. There were some problems with sound (in particular, the sink effect is far too loud and drowns out lines we really need to hear), but the show uses very little of it.

While there are one or two moments in the play which smell a little funny (Flanagan’s attempt to adopt a paternal role towards debutant Tom Kent doesn’t quite work), director Burgess has done an excellent job with French’s script. The physical comedy is wonderful, the running gags—a French hallmark—are prominent and easy to follow, and the show runs at the bright, speedy clip that plays of this nature require.

The great worry with Jitters is always that French was too heavy on the theatre: gags about call-board vandalism and Equity rulebooks will go right over the heads of anyone who doesn’t understand backstage life. Directors need to tread carefully to make the show accessible. But this production got belly laughs from a crowd of outsiders, and Burgess and his cast deserved them.

It’s a fun evening, it’s a great script, and the core performances are absolutely solid, but most importantly, this company understands that Jitters is a drama as much as a comedy: French, like his characters, might make us laugh in order to distract us, but we’re also supposed to empathize with these people. And Stage Centre Productions makes sure that we do.

Jitters is playing at the York Woods Library Theatre (1785 Finch Avenue West) until October 6, 2012
– Shows run Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM, with occasional matinees. See website.
– Tickets are $27.50, students and seniors $22.
– Tickets are available
online or through the box office at (416) 299-5557.

Photograph of Heather Goodall, Tony Rein and James Lukie by Fabio Saposnik.