The Passion of Narcisse Mondoux
by Gratien Gèlinas
Theatre New Brunswick
"Slight" is the word that leaps to your lips as you walk away from the Theatre New Brunswick production of Gratien Gèlinas' The Passion of Narcisse Mondoux. Could it be a matter of money? It is, of course, possible that all these suspicious facts -- that this play is a two-hander, that the set was probably the most inexpensive to build that I've ever seen at TNB, that there were no unusual demands put on the lighting or sound systems -- have nothing to do with TNB's current financial difficulties. But I'd be a lot more confident of that if I could have seen a dramatic or artistic reason for the set's bareness. Could this play have been done other than on a slightly raised platform with some furniture and books piled around? Sure. Would it have been changed had TNB actually built a replica of a room in a house in the Québec village of Saint-Esprit-en-Bas? Not in any way I can see. Fine, but what this means is that the only visible reason for using a set this spare was money. As it was, the script and the production didn't take advantage of the elegant simplicity of the set; it was just there.
But not only the production was slight: the play itself is slight, too. It's a wisp of a play, a bit over an hour long (including a 15-minute intermission which occurs, through the medium of a blackout, between one line and the next), with only the faintest whiff of a plot or a conflict. As we watch the encounter, over her husband's coffin, of Laurencienne Robichaud (whose newly dead husband was planning, to please her, to run for mayor) and Narcisse Mondoux, the village's master plumber, we wait for a conflict or problem to rear its interesting head. None does. At the end I was still waiting.
That's not entirely accurate; there are some problems. He doesn't understand how a woman could be interested in being mayor herself, or in fact in being anything other than a worshipful housewife; she doesn't understand just how ignorant he is. They haven't had much contact since he put his passion for her into mothballs because she went into the convent out of high school, only to find that she came out to marry someone else. Although his torch is still flaming, she doesn't know him and he doesn't know her. She's a self-confident, intelligent, modern woman, and he's, well, a habitant plumber.
It's sort of Hillary Clinton meets Lucien (or, more accurately, his ancestor, Gratien Gèlinas' own Fridolin, the character he invented on the radio, and who became the centre of his immensely successful Tit-Coq). If you admire Hillary Clinton, anyway. Both characters in the play are so astonishingly reasonable, sensible and considerate as to have virtually no depth at all. He thinks women shouldn't be anything other than domestic sex objects; she demonstrates that she's a resourceful, imaginative and intelligent mayoral candidate . . . and he decides that's just fine. "I'm afraid I'm beginning to admire you," he says. "That's nice," she responds. "Well, maybe for you," he says thoughtfully. But having decided that everything he's believed about women all his life is wrong, he simply accepts it, changes gears, and moves on. Okay, he says, I'll tear up my nomination papers and step aside so you can be elected by acclamation. Could I be house-husband to a politico? Sure, I'll try that.
Similarly, she -- not, apparently, having spoken with him more than casually since high school -- discovers he's a decent but ignorant tradesman who knows nothing whatever about her or what she's interested in . . . and decides, with no visible internal conflict, that, yes, well, "I think I'll end up loving you, too."
There's nothing wrong with that as decent, reasonable human behavior, and it yields some human, sensible, and occasionally touching dialogue, as they work things out. But as drama it's rather like watching two banks negotiate a merger.
Gay Hauser does as fine a job as I can imagine with a character so completely one-dimensional, a kind of idealized senior citizen's wet dream. She needs to be vivacious, beautiful, sensitive, mature, responsive, and clever -- and Hauser is all of those, in spades. And yet somehow there simply isn't enough there in the script to make you feel that something important has happened when she finally agrees, as the play ends, that Narcisse is likely to succeed in his single-minded quest to recoup what he lost in high school. It has been utterly clear from the first moment of the play -- and no obstacle worth its salt has raised its head -- that that's where she is going to wind up.
Thomas Hauff, on the other hand, as Narcisse, left so much to be desired that in fact it did seem just a little surprising that she hadn't told him -- as Cher did her similarly doting suitor in Moonstruck -- "snap out of it!" One problem, perhaps, might simply be confidence; Hauff seemed uncertain of his lines and of the shape of the character all evening long. The character of Narcisse is a bit of a blowhard, a kind of Monsieur Malaprop. This is a challenge, it seems likely, for a translator. For instance, I don't know where "I'm much more confidential now" comes from -- I don't think it's a direct translation of a French mistake, so one must assume that Linda Gaoriau, the translator, has been imaginative and creative in finding ways to create parallels in English to Narcisse's linguistic adventurism. But the real problem is that it's a challenge for an actor who is none too sure of his lines, as Hauff seemed on opening night. We missed, I suspect, some of Narcisse's nice mistakes because we couldn't tell them from Hauff's.
More important, had there been any real conflict in the play, it would have to come out of Narcisse's character, struggling to subdue a lifetime of prejudices about women -- but Hauff didn't convey much sense of such a struggle, or, in general, create much sense of Narcisse's passion. Though he was occasionally vituperative, between times nothing much seemed to be simmering, much less coming toward the boil; and though occasionally his lines were refreshingly naive -- "you don't have to be a connoisseur of beautiful women to see that you are harrassable," he says at one point -- educating him is no trick at all for the redoubtable Laurencienne. I suspect Gèlinas, who played the role originally, gave it a good deal more intensity.
In many ways the play seems an appropriate choice for a post-baby-boomer age, when the dominant demographic group in our society is looking for something a bit autumnal, something designed to make us believe in romance after retirement, a kind of On Golden Pond without the hard edges. Still, it's hard not to wish TNB hadn't found a play with a bit more substance. The small opening-night house was warm in its responses early on (many of us, it appeared, were of an age with Narcisse and Laurencienne), but finally withheld the usual TNB opening night standing ovation. Was The Passion of Narcisse Mondoux more than a nice way to pass an hour or so without commercials (other than the obligatory announcement at the opening about whom we were to be grateful to tonight)? It wasn't clear to me that it was.