Early in The Swearing Jar, Toronto playwright Kate Hewlett introduces an overworked plot device that does not bode well for the enjoyment of her newly expanded fringe festival hit.
You know the stale sitcom standard: two people, usually a happy couple like Hewlett's Carey and Simon, have big news for each other. The pair spar mildly as to who can announce their secret first and then one's big revelation is so exciting that the other lamely says they have forgotten what a few seconds before seemed so imperative to divulge.
So after establishing the pair are happily in love -- she proclaims contentedly, "I'm glad you are in my life" -- Carey discloses that they are going to have a baby. Actually, she says, "We're going to have a f ing baby," and so vows to end their potty-mouth ways for the good of the coming child with a swearing jar that will cost $5 per profanity.
Simon obviously doesn't want to ruin the joyous moment with his news and clams up, but the audience has been tipped off that it can't be good. The non-disclosure hangs ominously over the hour-long first act.
In this thin entertainment, you know so quickly where this is going, and given the title, you can %$#&! bet there will be plenty of bad language along the way. To give The Swearing Jar more complexity and boost faint interest, Hewlett does not tell her story in chronological order but mixes scenes around the 40th birthday party/concert that Carey throws for Simon. In productions in Toronto and New York, Hewlett played Carey and showed off her pleasing talents as a singer/songwriter. The tunes express her deep feelings to Simon ("It's miraculous to meet your one true soul mate") but not all hit the mark, such as the one suggesting that the way to a man's heart is through his heart.
As Carey in the Prairie Theatre Exchange production, Sarah Constible is, as ever, a strong dramatic force onstage, but her singing voice, while competent, is not as sweet as could be wished. Gabriel Gosselin easily sells good-guy Simon, whose only sins seems to be a stormy relationship with his prickly mother Bev (Teri Cherniack) and knowing when to keep his mouth shut. Cherniack supplies some welcome gravitas to the ensemble that makes Bev the most interesting character on the PTE stage.
Christopher Stanton is a veteran of The Swearing Jar's development and plays the annoyingly awkward but well-meaning Owen, a bookstore worker who develops what he thinks is a promising relationship with Carey. Stanton accompanies her well on guitar but their scenes together are stiff and unnatural.
Owen overreacts to being startled by Carey's tap on the shoulder. She slaps his hand when she mistakes his attempt to brush a crumb off her lapel as an unwanted advance. Director Stewart Arnott tries to make more of these innocuous moments because their isn't much else there.
Hewlett's exploration of true love won't make you fall for The Swearing Jar. The humour is light and the reaction to the slight plot creates an emotional flat line. Simon holds back crucial information that will affect his relationship with Carey. That incenses Carey, who in turn holds back crucial information that will affect her relationship with Owen.
It's hard to judge this fresh two-act version of The Swearing Jar against the unseen, supposedly more successful, hour-long version. As is often the case, pleasant, unchallenging playlets seen for $10 during the summer don't hold up when expectations and ticket prices are higher in the serious season.
The Swearing Jar
Prairie Theatre Exchange
To Dec. 2
Tickets: $27-$47 at www.pte.mb.ca
Three stars out of five