Review: The Millennial Malcontent (Tarragon Theatre)

Photo of Frank Cox-O'Connor in The Millennial MalcontentThe Millennial Malcontent plays on the Tarragon stage in Toronto

What do you get when an apathetic woman, a vainglorious, misogynistic and self-absorbed youtuber, and a performance studies academic go out on Nuit Blanche? Shenanigans ensue in Tarragon Theatre’s The Millennial Malcontent playing at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

A raunchy, contemporary, Restoration style play, The Millennial Malcontent tries to unpack (and fails to understand) ‘millennial culture’ while still managing to be a laugh-out-loud night at the theatre.

Moxy (Liz Peterson) is a frustrated newly-wed, angered and tired of her husband Johnny’s (Reza Sholen) niceness. Meanwhile, Johnny is encouraged by his friend Heartfree (James Daly) to pursue an affair with friend-of-a-friend, Faith (Rong Fu). At the same time, Faith’s friend’s Teasel (Natasha Mumba) inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will come to a head on Nuit Blanche when she approaches vlogger Charm (Frank Cox-O’Connell)  in an attempt to figure out if he’s an ironic performance artist or a just a fool.

As the stories begin to overlap and intertwine in true problem play fashion, weddings are crashed, costumes are worn, and vlogs are made.

The cast—an amazing ensemble–makes every moment a rollicking good time. While I can’t spend all my time extolling the virtues of everyone (although I could, they are wonderful), I do want to highlight Mumba’s Teasel as my personal favourite, and quite frankly, my new favourite female character I’ve seen on stage this year.

Smart, funny, cutting, and sweet, Mumba delivers a memorable performance. Her chemistry with Fu, Cox-O’Connell, and Daly is electric. Every bit of comedy, from her opening monologue about the dangers of men expressing their feelings to her developing romantic inclinations, worked without feeling jarring or unjustified. Mumba 100 percent made Teasel unforgettable.

If there’s any criticism to be lobbied at the cast, I think it stems from personal preference rather than performance. For example, I suspect, Cox-O’Connell  as the over-the-top, flamboyant Charm falls on the love him or hate him spectrum. I know I was torn between appreciating the role as a throwback to fool characters in early modern drama, and not finding the character all that funny.

He’s jarring at times, even against the chaotic nature of the people around him. There’s something strangely off-putting about his hyper-stylized performance at times–but Cox-O’Connell embraces the strange and while you might not like him, I don’t think the show would be half as good without him.

And again, speaking as a massive theatre history nerd, it was refreshing to see an old-style ensemble show that allowed for scene changes, cheeky asides, and massive scope in time and action. Outside of musicals and watching Shakespeare, I almost never get to see works of this size on the Canadian stage.

The only thing that keeps this show from being perfect for me has got to be the eye-roll inducing, crying-in-a-shower (yes it happens), meta-commentary on ‘Millennial culture.’ I get it: Millennials post things on the internet, that they use those newfangled terms like cis-gendered, or they rebel against traditional social expectations like marriage. Yes, it’s all very different, but different doesn’t equal bad or self-absorbed or emotionally ‘lost.’

The Millennial Malcontent is so much better when it’s just trying to be a contemporary Restoration comedy. The jokes are funny not because ‘checking your privilege’ or being ‘gender queer’ are strange or weird, but because even when people try to be better by challenging the dominant narratives, they struggle and miscommunicate and flounder.

Whether intentional or not, Erin Shields’s play has a bit of a nasty streak that occasionally rears its head. So-called ‘hipster’ language, or even dialogue around young people and social media, are still fields that fight for legitimacy. Watching two men discuss how they handle their feelings while trying to support the women around them but also not necessarily supporting how certain points of view are expressed makes for insightful dialogue. Offering a throwaway line about sexual fluidity where the inability to be ‘sure’ of one’s identity is the joke, not so much.

I’ll choose to believe that the missteps are mostly unintentional but I can’t give it a free pass.  Which is too bad, because if it didn’t have those particular problems, The Millennial Malcontent would be perfect.


Photo of Frank Cox-O’Connell and  Amelia Sargisson  by Cylla von Tiedemann