February 22, 2020

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Curling comedy a hacky affair

Good performances, timely topic can't save sitcom-ish script

Lorraine James (from left), Zhaopeng Meng, Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed and Omar Alex Khan add nuanced dimensions to their characters that the script lacks. (Leif Norman)

Lorraine James (from left), Zhaopeng Meng, Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed and Omar Alex Khan add nuanced dimensions to their characters that the script lacks. (Leif Norman)

Ah, small-town Canada. Land of ice, snow, Tim Hortons, curling clubs and… um.

Ontario playwright Mark Crawford's comedy The New Canadian Curling Club proceeds on a premise that small-town Canadian culture is a bit of a wasteland. In a show that trades in — pardon the pun — sweeping generalizations, that one may be the most tiresome.

The premise: Four "New Canadians" show up at a small-town Ontario curling club to learn the oddball sport from crusty curling vet Stuart MacPhail (Doug McKeag), a seventh-generation Scot proud of his family's curling legacy, inscribed for eternity, more or less, on the club's display of bonspiel trophies.

One of the players, Jamaican-born Charmaine Bailey (Lorraine James), manager of the town's only Tim Hortons franchise, isn't really a new Canadian at all. She's lived in the town for a quarter-century after falling in love with a Dutch-Canadian and following him home.

Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed (from left), Omar Alex Khan, Lorraine James and Zhaopeng Meng bond at a small-town curling club. (Leif Norman)

Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed (from left), Omar Alex Khan, Lorraine James and Zhaopeng Meng bond at a small-town curling club. (Leif Norman)

The Indian emigré Anoopjeet Singh (Omar Alex Khan), aspiring Hortons assistant manager, is also a relatively seasoned resident of seven years. He escaped the horrors of Mississauga, where he and his wife were living a life of indentured servitude to the relatives who sponsored his move to Canada. (Honestly, that detail right there might have been the basis of a better play.) Now he is struggling to make ends meet, supporting his wife and triplet sons.

One of the actual new Canadians, Chinese international medical student Mike (Zhaopeng Meng), has a connection to Stuart: He plans to ask Stuart's granddaughter to marry him. His ability to form a relationship with Stuart is, in every sense, a test.

Finally, Fatima Al-Sayed (Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed), newly arrived with her parents from a Syrian refugee camp, is seen as one of those teen girls forever attached to her smartphone, with one important distinction: the device is her lifeline to a brother left behind in Syria.

Crawford's script is written in broad-strokes sitcom style. Indeed, MacPhail seems a slightly less malignant descendant of All in the Family's bigot-clown Archie Bunker, in that he is fixated on the triumphant heritage of his ancestors, while conveniently forgetting the members of one of those past generations were themselves immigrants.

Director Miles Potter often lands the laughs on Stuart's politically incorrect observations, to the extent that it becomes difficult to tell if we're supposed to be laughing at Stuart or with him. Coupled with non-stop references to Tim Hortons coffee and Timbits, one comes to suspect we're stuck in a stale-dated TV show in which the commercials have been embedded via product placement.

Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed (left) and Lorraine James. (Leif Norman)

Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed (left) and Lorraine James. (Leif Norman)

The set by Steve Lucas offers up a realistic looking rink where most of the action takes place, though it's a barren space to spend two hours and 10 minutes (including an intermission); this might be unintentionally reflective of the barrenness of small-town life as depicted by the playwright. A couple of video screens on either side of the stage might have been better utilized to illustrate Stuart's belief that curling offers the strategic properties of chess.

One still emerges impressed by the performers, who strive to add some human dimension to their characters that's lacking in the script. The impressively limber Khan emerges as one of the more successful actors in this regard, deftly sidestepping the clichés of Indian immigrant portrayal. James's Jamaican accent comes and goes, but she still brings a vitality to the role. Zhaopeng Meng is a young actor whose rawness on the stage serves the character of Mike. And while the role of Fatima is underdeveloped — even new Canadian teen girls can't stop staring at their phones, ha, ha — Smith-Dostmohamed brings some charm and mettle to the part.

Though his character is problematic, McKeag does solid work, and even has a lovely poignant moment, as the angry old white guy. His performance is right on the button.

Alas, you can't say the same for the play.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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