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Review: Canine comedy gives paws to those who aren’t dog people

Poignant tale of sibling rivalry, pet ownership

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Two men named Best are no match for man’s best friend in playwright Daniel MacIvor’s new comedic crowd-pleaser.

Prairie Theatre Exchange opened its 41st season Thursday night with The Best Brothers, which centres around the sudden, ridiculous death of Ardith Bunny Best, and the three boys she leaves behind to battle to be top dog in the family.

Much of the 90-minute two-hander focuses on Bunny’s two middle-aged sons, Hamilton and Kyle, re-igniting their sibling rivalry while planning the funeral. Although her pooch, Enzo, is never seen onstage, he eventually runs away with the hearts of the audience to win best in MacIvor’s show.

The unlikely brothers of the same mother are total opposites, bearing no resemblance in looks, demeanour or sexual orientation. Hamilton is an architect who builds condos, while Kyle is a real estate agent who sells them— their work is reflected in Janelle Regalbuto’s visually impressive set that features rear projections that seamlessly flows into the live action. The bonus of having images of well-appointed condos or their blueprints as backdrops is not having to make major set changes to unnecessarily slow down the comedy’s brisk pace.

The differences between the brothers are immediately established when they simultaneously receive the news of the death of their widowed mother, who is crushed by an oversized drag queen named Pina Colada at a gay pride parade. Tightly wound Hamilton wants to speed to the scene of the accident, while younger brother Kyle reacts with, "No rush, then."

The two are thrown together to settle the estate — and their old conflicts reduce these adults to children again as they write Bunny’s obituary, arrange for the funeral home visitation and decide which one will give her eulogy. They become the bickering Bests, with Kyle keenly aware which of Hamilton’s buttons to push to set off another tirade that ends, as it always has, with death threats or a punch in the arm.

This is the first production of The Best Brothers that doesn’t feature MacIvor in the cast. Director Robert Metcalfe earns kudos for the pristine production and finding two local actors who smartly capture the complicated dynamic of mourning a parent. Carson Nattrass has all the fun as flighty and flamboyant Kyle, whose innocence and smile camouflage a more calculating side. His timing wrings extended laughs and the way he applies his lip balm signals trouble for hapless Hamilton.

New Winnipegger Paul Essiembre plays straight man Hamilton with an anger that suggests early on it might be best the brothers not be together. He loads up his wounded character with resentment and disillusionment and reveals that uptight Hamilton has never gotten over the rivalry with his kid brother and the fact that his life has not played out as he designed it.

Unlike MacIvor’s previous plays, which depended on edgier humour, The Best Brothers falls back on classic comedy tropes that are familiar but ever-entertaining. The eulogy scene is hilarious yet poignant, as Hamilton breaks down, recalling painful moments where he came in second in the competition for maternal love and attention.

Present in the middle of the set at all times is a box containing Bunny’s spirit, as represented by her favourite hat, which each of the sons dons, along with green gloves, to resurrect her from the grave so she can talk about the males in her life. She explains why she got Enzo to fill a hole in her life and that he was her true love.

MacIvor, who became a dog owner in mid-life, offers a beautiful tribute to canine pets and the healing power of the wet nose. He argues that they represent the purity in our hearts and often decide what human relationships will develop in dog parks.

The Italian greyhound Enzo is the catalyst for change after literally bringing Hamilton to his knees with the destruction he wreaks. The dog teaches him a hard lesson: life is messy and there are no blueprints that can ensure an orderly one.

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