by Morris Panych
Theatre UNB / Stage Left
Memorial Hall, February 2003
Morris Panych's 7 Stories is the kind of play you just know began with the playwright waking up in the middle of the night with an inspiration. "Suppose this guy goes out on a ledge to kill himself and instead of the old cliché, the do-gooder (cop, counsellor, whatever) talking him back in, it turns out that the folks who talk to him are so preoccupied with their own trivial problems that they barely notice him."
"OK," a good editor might say, "but what else? How are you going to structure it? Is there going to be a plot that overrides the conversations with these various people and drives things forward? Is there going to be anything to look at other than a guy on a ledge talking to people through their windows?"
Unfortunately, I think Morris Panych's answer would be, "I don't need that: I'll just make the conversations so interesting and funny that no one will notice there's no plot or action."
That's the problem Kayte Toner and Josef Addleman took on when they decided to direct the play, and if they don't quite succeed in solving it, they and their largely excellent cast made us forget, at least for a while, that what Panych offers us is more like a continuing routine for Saturday Night Live ("Again this week: The Man on the Ledge!") than a play.
The most immediate challenge, of course, is the set. How do you arrange for the man on the ledge to have all these conversations with various people, in various apartments? There are probably two alternatives: one would be to face the improbability of the whole concept and create an absurd or surreal set; the other -- much closer to Toner and Addleman's choice -- is to create the front of a building, with a ledge for the main character (identified only as The Man, and played with wonderful plaintive Chaplinesque competence by Stephen Atkinson) to stand on, and seven windows for the various characters to deal with him through. Set designer Sabrina Crowell makes the front of the building L-shaped, breaking up what would otherwise have been an impossibly cold facade, and spaces out seven identical windows, three on one side and four on the other. Though this works in terms of spacing and timing (The Man can move from side to side on his ledge, coming closer to whatever window happens to be in play), it still calls on us not to think about practicalities like how narrow the apartments must be, or why they all have blackout curtains rather than windows -- but the solid realism of the building's facade keeps reminding us. (When, at the end, The Man makes his leap and flies about like Mary Poppins, clinging to his umbrella, it seemed to me the way the building essentially disappeared behind the play of spotlights and Atkinson choreographs flight hinted at how the whole thing might have been staged.)
What the directors have to do, then, is to take Panych's plan and run with it: it's necessary to make the timing, the speed, and the comic force of the separate scenes into the whole point. By and large, they succeed in this.
Because the script is pretty much, as someone once called a script I wrote, "bludgeon-school satire," there really isn't much in the way of character. It's more useful to think of it as a clown show or perhaps commedia del arte: the eighteen roles in the script are differentiated so crudely that you never notice that they're played by only eleven actors (in the original production, there were only five). All of them were vibrant, clear, understandable and funny. I particularly noticed Jeremy Gorman's Leonard, as a paranoid and narcoleptic psychiatrist with impeccable timing ("In the future, don't patronize me. I'm the doctor, and I'll do all the patronizing"); Matthew Spinney's pathetic actor, Percy*, with the in-and-out theatrical accent and the fake mustache; and Paula Hall's indomitable Rachel, a self-appointed standin for God ("Unfortunately, you're on the wrong floor. I can't help people up here on the seventh storey. But the people on the sixth and fifth are well looked after"). Perhaps the role which comes nearest to being an actual character is Vicki King's Lillian, the hundred year old woman who comes as close as anyone in the script to saying something sensible, urging the Man to jump off the ledge and fly: "Don't listen to them. They're all trying to put the world in order. They don't want people flying around all over the place. They'd have to make up a whole bunch of new regulations. That's just bullshit. Just go."
On the other hand, she's also the one who offers as a philosophy to live by "La pamplemousse est sur la table."
Absurd? Well, a few decades ago we'd have called this theatre of the absurd, and it's still a pretty fair example of the genre. As satire, it's funny and penetrating. Of the characters, the only one who ever really hears anything The Man says, or notices that he's a potential suicide, is Lillian; the rest are utterly preoccupied with their own problems. More, their problems represent a kind of inventory of trendy preoccupations of the turn of the century: domestic relations, mental health, self expression, religion, each skewered in its turn.
Perhaps it would be asking too much to want Panych to have given us some characters or plot; and in their absence we can thank Stage Left for having given us what the script does offer: lots of laughs, and lots of reflection on what it is we're laughing about.