From the Black Donnellys to Joey Smallwood, social history and politics have dominated Canadian theatre in the past decade. Comedies, musicals and “boulevard plays”— light, sophisticated pieces ranging from thrillers to frothy farce—have been rare. However, that trend is reversing. Now that the significance and drawing power of Canadian culture is no longer in question, dramatists feel freer to explore traditional formats whose sole purpose is to entertain. Following such successful thrillers as Peter Colley’s I’ll Be Back for You Before Midnight and Dan Ross’s Murder Game, John Gray’s You Better Watch Out,
You Better Not Die at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre blends thriller and farce into 90 erratic minutes of breakneck comedy.
For Gray, author of the megahit musicals Billy Bishop Goes to War and Rock and Roll,
You Better Watch Out is an unfinished lesson in narrative.
The episodic nature of musicals has never forced him to weave cohesive plots, and the play shows that he still has a lot to learn. His work has always combined mass appeal with shrewd insight and convincing emotion which rarely descends to the sentimental.
But those qualities surface only sporadically in You Better Watch Out.
The ingredients are promising. The Weeds (Edward Greenhalgh and Joan Orenstein), a retired couple whose grown children are not coming home for Christmas, decide to spend the holiday at The Empress Hotel in Victoria. After a hard day dressed up as Santa Claus, Chuck Swinton, MLA, (Stan Lesk) also books in, with his call-girl friend, Ginny (Wanda Wilkinson). The only room available is a luxury suite with two bedrooms already occupied by a recluse who also dresses as Santa. Once the murders start, Scrooges will enjoy Gray’s antidote to Christmas cheer because every corpse is a Santa. Attempting to solve the mystery is Insp. Brews-
ter (George Merner), a parody of Philip Marlowe, whose relationships to the police force and the story Gray never satisfactorily explains.
For best results, farces and thrillers both require watertight plots, but the many holes in Gray’s story almost sink the play. Still, the absurd digressions are enjoyable, especially the comic dilemmas of retirement which veterans Greenhalgh and Orenstein expose with sparkling aplomb. Moreover, Andrew
Murray has designed an ingenious hotel suite more suited to Dracula’s castle than The Empress, complete with revolving bookcases and bedrooms. A further inspiration is a gargantuan pair of Santa trousers revolving around Swinton, whom Lesk wisely transforms into a standing joke. True to form, Gray pairs Swinton’s buffoonery with tongue-in-cheek metaphysics from Wanda, who wonders at one point, “Do we purchase our misery or do we get free samples?” But those are stopgap measures: without a better story to tell, You Better Watch Out will not give A Christmas Carol a serious run at Yuletide. —MARK CZARNECKI
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