Left to right: Ryan Beil, Megan Leitch and James Fagan Tait in Jitters. (photo by David Cooper)
Let’s hear it for the play-within-a-play, the vehicle that takes the audience from front-of-house to backstage dressing room, into the psyche of live theatre, chock-full of clever lines, employing slapstick that isn’t overdone and providing first-rate acting and laughs from beginning to end. Jitters is simply a great way to spend an evening.
Similar to Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, which ran at the Playhouse in 2004, Jitters – presented by Arts Club Theatre – follows the launch of a new performance (The Care and Treatment of Roses) from chaotic on-stage rehearsals to backstage conflict and confusion. But, whereas Noises relies on physical comedy, Jitters is more about the frailness and insecurities of actors, particularly Canadian actors who see the United States as a means to success.
In Jitters, the playwright, director and (almost) entire cast are hoping their play will be brought to Broadway by an American producer who may or may not be in the audience.
The play gets its name from opening-night jitters, as director George is doing his best to open Roses on time with the whole cast in attendance – not an easy thing to do when one actor ends up in hospital, another shows up drunk and a third simply walks out. Like a coach in the dressing room at half-time, George’s tactics include mollycoddling, pleading, motivating, scolding, ego-stroking, pacifying and all-around sucking up to get his actors in line. And each one needs a different kind of hand-holding.
Though she is fawned over as the star of Roses, diva Jessica (Megan Leitch) still has self-doubt, but George’s attempt to boost her confidence falls on deaf ears. “You look gorgeous,” he tells her in dress rehearsal.
“Liar! I look like a Barbie doll for octogenarians,” she hisses.
And, in a hilarious moment, George asks, “Can we discuss this like adults?” she answers, “We aren’t adults; we’re actors.”
Then there’s Phil (James Fagan Tait), the neurotic shlemazl who starts every sentence with, “I don’t want to burden you,” before complaining about his wardrobe, his hairpiece, his life and the fact that there is no prompter (as he tends to get ulcers at the thought of forgetting his lines); Patrick (Robert Moloney), the acrimonious, jealous co-star who would rather be a big fish in Canadian theatre than risk failure on Broadway; and Tom (Kamyar Pazendeh), whose novice uncertainty is a refreshing contrast to the other actors’ cynicism. Tom is going to be a great actor because “he’s got the right combination of empathy and self-absorption.”
Meanwhile, the playwright Robert (played by Jewish community member Ryan Beil – a dead ringer for Eric Idle in this role) is a nervous wreck, wincing and arguing every time his script is changed to indulge the actors.
While Jitters doesn’t highlight physical comedy, as seen in Noises Off, the verbal jousting is far better. The script pillories the treatment of Canadian actors (“Where else can you be a top-notch actor all your life and still die broke and anonymous?”) but it also examines the complexity of the characters who one moment are insulting and backstabbing each other and the next moment hugging in understanding.
The neuroses, capriciousness and insecurities of the actors allow for wonderfully fun performances, but I didn’t find the quality equal across the board. I thought Tait’s hapless encounters and expressive reactions stole the show, while Leitch seemed to be overplaying the part she’s supposed to be overplaying.
Final kudos must go to the set design. The stunning detail of the dressing room after the 360-degree turn of the stage before the second act was so unexpected, it actually drew applause from the audience, which I have rarely seen.
Two jittery thumbs up.
Jitters runs at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage under the direction of David Mackay (who, by the way, also starred in Noises Off) until Feb. 25. For tickets, visit artsclub.com.
Baila Lazarus is a Vancouver-based writer and principal media strategist at bailalazarus.com.