Here on the Flight Path
by Norm Foster
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, November 2005
I very nearly simply skipped reviewing TNB's opening production of the 2005-6 season. Not because I didn't attend but because, as I reluctantly rose to my feet among the audience at the standing ovation it received, it was clear to me that I may well not be qualified to review Here on the Flight Path, because I simply didn't get it, and if the folks laughing all the way through it around me are any indication, I was nearly alone.
As regular readers of my reviews will know, I often avoid reviewing shows I can't be enthusiastic about, because I consider my role as a reviewer to be to provide thinking, or talking, points, and to do what I can to help people think about the production; and though it's tempting to have fun writing zingers about productions I didn't like, it's not a productive practice.
I think that in this case, though, it may be worth thinking about what seemed to work for much of the audience but did not work at all for me. Bear in mind, however, that if you like one-liners and don't find it distracting when they ignore character consistency; if you enjoy standup comics and are not bothered when the jokes accumulate rather than build; you'll find a good deal to enjoy in the production.
The structure of the play is fairly easily described: John lives in an apartment with a balcony. Over the space of about four years, three women live in the apartment next door, with adjoining balconies. All three pass through his life. He tells us about them, and his narration is interspersed with dramatized scenes from the conversations between John and the women (all played by the same actress). One, Fay, is an oddly professional prostitute; the second, Angel, is an aspiring musical-comedy singer-actress, in from Alberta on daddy's money to pursue her "dream"; the third, Gwen, is a recently separated woman who has just fled Vancouver to "rebuild her life." John is a newspaper columnist, a somewhat bitter divorcée, and a kind of walking symbol of whatever insensitive male characteristics you might think of.
Each relationship takes up one act of the play. All are bridged and punctuated by John's monologues to the audience, sometimes giving us the background and sometimes taking us on little excursions elsewhere -- for example, into the back-story of his friend who is getting married at the beginning of the first act, is having marital trouble on his first anniversary at the beginning of the second act, and is separated and has been living with John at the beginning of the third; or in a comedy routine about the neighbour hooked on TV shopping who apparently occupies the next apartment between women #2 and #3.
Although character evolution is alluded to -- John announces at the end, for example, that he's now interested in a long-term relationship -- we don't see it happen, or see any dramatized reason for it. What actually happens is pretty arbitrary. Fay leaves because the management has discovered her profession and evicts her (I'm not clear about where or when this is supposed to have happened: the play was originally written in the mid-nineties, but the notion that a woman could be evicted for that reason -- she never, she says, brings her "consultees" home -- seems rather quaint to me). Angel leaves because, she reports, her Alberta banker father is being prosecuted for embezzlement and her mother has left him, and she needs to go "be with" her father. And Gwen leaves because she suddenly decides, after a year, that "her life" is in Vancouver (we're told that another neighbour has been loaning her self-improvement videos).
One can see that the metaphor is the planes that fly overhead arbitrarily between times; arbitrary arrivals, mechanical departures. One damn thing after another; not, I think, what theatre does best. But, as I have said, that's my view, and if that lack of connection doesn't disturb you, you'd likely find a lot to laugh at.
Norm Foster, as John, doesn't so much give us a character as act as a kind of genial, distanced host, cracking off one-liners and shuffling around in sweater and slacks, reminding me rather a lot of sixties standup comic Mort Sahl. That John is distanced from the actual relationships the play shows is signalled at a number of points. For example, at the moment when we discover that -- at last -- he's actually bedded one his his neighbours (she appears from his apartment in a bathrobe), he's still casually sweatered and slacked as they discuss the quality of the previous night's sex. Foster's timing is professional, and he manages to extract laughs even in places where the lines don't quite earn them, but I never felt much engagement between him and any of the three women: I didn't even feel the interest a newspaper columnist might have had in their lives. His questions have no apparent agenda other than to keep the conversational ball in motion and, perhaps, to score -- though this motive is never all that clear. He alludes to his own desperation, but it's pretty difficult to see evidence of it in his demeanour or dialogue. When Fay finally and quite suddenly offers him a "freebie" (dramatically shrugging off her jacket, leaving her naked except for a skirt and blouse) as a "farewell gift," he turns her down on the grounds that they're good friends and it would change the relationship. If he struggles to do so, it's not obvious.
Rona Waddington plays the three women, distinguishing them so profoundly that it would, I think, be quite possible to miss the fact that it's the same actress. Paradoxically, I'm not sure this is a good idea: some of the impact of the play surely might lie in the fact that John really has the same relationship with all three, and if, under the surface, all three are the same woman, it would invite us to be aware of this (at one point, after John and Gwen have had their initial night of love, when she asks him, "was I good?" he responds, "Well, for a woman to be good all she really has to do is show up"). In a number of productions, three different actresses have taken the roles, and it seems to me that loses something: to the extent that Waddington succeeded in being three utterly different people, we run the same risk.
That aside, it's fun to watch her acquire totally different mannerisms and speech patterns (and, of course, costumes and hair). The challenge, however, is that all three characters -- especially, perhaps, Fay and Angel -- are so deeply caricatured that it's difficult to feel attachment to them or concern for their goals. Angel, for instance, as she tells John, has had roles in three or four musicals in Alberta, but when she screeches out her appalling rendition of the climactic chorus from "Don't Rain on My Parade" it's inconceivable that anyone would ever have cast her in anything. Similarly, as she rehearses the one scene she ever gets called back for, whacking the hapless John with her purse as she screams in "actorly" fury, it's impossible to believe that she's been called back. Are the scenes funny? I guess, but here -- as regularly elsewhere in the script -- it seems to me that the laughs come at the expense of character, sympathy, and believability. It is perhaps true that in order to enjoy the performances one needs to think of this as clowning rather than drama, and I wish I were able to do so. I do not mean this as a putdown: I respect and admire clowning, and I suspect my inability to enjoy the gusto of Waddington's portrayal of Angel (for example) may be my problem rather than the actress's or the script's.
The set is striking and professional, though I don't think I've ever seen so shallow an acting space on the Playhouse stage, or one which did so much to distance the production from the audience. The balconies have continuous low railings which stretch across the stage at the front; across the rear the brick face of the apartment building, punctuated on both sides by glass patio doors, seems at most ten feet from the rail (and the wall visible through the door on each side seems about three feet behind that, as though the balcony opened from a hallway). The separation between the two halves of the stage is radical: a brick extension comes out from the wall and the railing dividing the two balconies extends from there. I guess we have to accept as convention the fact that the two balconies not only adjoin, but are almost intimately connected: I've never seen such an architectural feature, but it's necessary if the characters are to be able casually to observe each other barbecuing, exercising, and living their lives as though in the same back yard.
Chris Saad's lighting, as always, is effective and unobtrusive. The sound design, by Mike Johnston, seemed more than competent, in spite of the fact that I couldn't make much sense of the short musical stingers that began the acts. I believed in the jets which roared by overhead on cue. Walter Learning's direction did everything I could imagine to give the characters business, motion, relation and purpose -- in spite of the severe constraints of the fundamental concept, which has John standing on his balcony, either addressing us directly or in conversation with his next door neighbour, who is similarly stuck on the matching balcony on the other side of the stage. Often the business seemed pretty arbitrary: at one point, for instance, John picks up a golf club and mimes practicing his putting (though what he wielded looked more like a one-iron to me), with no motive I could see other than to do something while the conversation meandered through an allusion to his liking to play golf.
It may be, as I have suggested, that the professionalism of the production led others in the audience to see more in the script than I was able to.
It's interesting to me that Theatre New Brunswick has gradually reduced its Fredericton run to four shows, and does not play more than one night anywhere else in the province (eleven performances in total). I have not gone back to look at the schedule for a few years ago when TNB ran a full week in Fredericton and at least a couple of nights in Saint John and Moncton, but it is clear that this is a far smaller and less ambitious enterprise than it once was, or than Walter Learning envisioned back in 1969.
At the opening of Here on the Flight Path Thursday night, Learning welcomed us back to the Playhouse stage for the new season, and introduced Claude Giroux, the new Artistic Director of TNB. Both characterized this season as a turning point in TNB's history, and a particularly exciting time to be involved. One hopes that that's correct, and that under this new direction TNB may be turning a corner. At the same time one wonders, though, about the view of its mission implied in the fact that Giroux invited the audience to fill out a multiple-choice questionnaire about what we'd like to see next season, and promised that he'd deliver what the audience wanted. I'm not sure I'm inspired by that vision.