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article imageReview: Winning MacIvor comedy about brothers in mourning hits Toronto Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Sep 26, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - Daniel MacIvor has long established himself as a Canadian theatre icon, but he’s never been as accessible, funny or true as he is in his newest play, “The Best Brothers”, which was a hit at last year’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
The Best Brothers, which had its Toronto premiere last night at the Tarragon Theatre, is a one-act comedy that showcases the veteran playwright at his most entertaining and audience-friendly. It’s moving without ever turning sentimental, and it’s very funny without losing its heart. As directed by Dean Gabourie, it’s a kind of update on the old Odd Couple premise, but working with a wider scope of themes.
MacIvor himself plays Hamilton Best, one of two middle-aged brothers dealing with the sudden death of their 75-year-old mother, nicknamed Bunny, in very different ways. Hamilton’s an architect, and his sibling, Kyle (John Beale), sells real estate. Hamilton is a conventional, wealthy, married man with a seemingly stable home life; Kyle is more flamboyant and free-spirited, with an always-changing address and a male sex worker for a lover – insisting that he isn’t employing the sex worker but that “it’s just what he does for a living.” The brothers bicker before, during and after the funeral over Bunny’s obituary, which one of them she loved more, how to respond to people’s condolence cards and, most significantly, who should keep Enzo, her Italian greyhound.
Bunny’s death, it turns out, resulted from an absurd accident at Toronto's Pride parade, an incident involving a speaker and an obese drag queen. Hamilton blames Kyle for her death, arguing that she never would have attended such an event without his influence. But the brothers eventually learn that there was more to her death – and to their individual relationships with her – than what was on the surface.
While the play’s a two-hander, the Best brothers aren’t the only characters you meet. Both MacIvor and Beale take turns playing Bunny in soliloquy, using one of her gloves and sometimes her hat to distinguish her from their main roles. It adds a whole extra dimension to the play, as she tells her own side of her past relationships with men, her sons and her dog. Enzo appears onstage in the form of a pet carrier, to which Hamilton addresses a lengthy, strange and unexpectedly poignant monologue about LEGOs.
Gabourie’s staging of Brothers, presumably brought over to Tarragon from the Stratford production, works marvelously. He keeps a quick, almost frantic pace going during the more terse exchanges between Hamilton and Kyle, while using Julie Fox’s spare set and Itai Erdal’s lighting to often brilliant effect. Bunny’s coffin at the funeral is suggested by a rectangular light on the centre of the stage floor, which helps to reinforce her character as someone who’s in the play in spirit rather than physically, and the green motif (not just in the stage floor but also in Bunny’s hat and gloves) works well for the final park scene.
Finally, it’s the performances that carry the show. The chemistry between the pair never misses a beat. MacIvor plays Hamilton as a no-nonsense, businesslike man with no patience for Kyle’s occasional cluelessness or eccentricity; “I could kill you!” he occasionally croaks at Kyle, revealing suppressed rage. Beale’s portrayal occasionally wobbles along the tightrope of gay caricature, but reveals believable depths as the play moves on.
Brothers isn’t necessarily the deepest play, or the most complex one, but it’s very real in the way it illustrates the love-hate dynamics and lifelong conflicts between siblings. More indirectly, it’s a play about how we relate to dogs. Working almost symbolically, Enzo’s implied presence brings out both the best and worst in the characters through their attitudes towards him (Kyle likes the dog, Hamilton doesn’t).
Funny, bittersweet, tightly written and profound in its own way, Brothers is MacIvor at his best.
The Best Brothers runs at the Tarragon Theatre until October 27. Professional dog-walking services are available for pet owners (while they watch the play) during the September 27 and 29 shows.
More about Theatre, Stage, daniel macivor, Toronto, tarragon
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