Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Wild Guys
by Andrew Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw

Theatre New Brunswick
March 1998

If you're ready to laugh at the kind of self-absorption that leads people to organize self-help encounter groups to get in touch with their inner selves, confront their primal fears and acknowledge their emotions -- and indulge in endless streams of psychobabble to rationalize their preoccupation with making their personal problems feel like the woes of the world -- well, you'd better make sure not to miss Theatre New Brunswick's current production of The Wild Guys.

But be ready to stop laughing suddenly, because the authors of the script -- and Walter Learning's company -- are going to insist that there are times when this stuff isn't funny at all, and you're going to have to be pretty alert to tell the difference.

The Wild Guys is a Canadian play by Calgarians Andrew Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw. It won the Solange Karsh award for best play in the 1992 National Playwriting Competition, and has been widely produced since, partly because it's an extremely funny script, with juicy roles for four male actors, and partly because its subject is one of those trendy opportunities for satire which crop up about once in a decade. The whole larger issue of gender stereotyping, consciousness raising, and the men's and women's movements has yielded at least four of Theatre New Brunswick's more successful productions in the last few years, including 1994-5's Yard Sale and If We are Women and their most recent production, Carol Shields' Thirteen Hands.

The basic premise of this play -- it's a sort of combination of Deliverance without violence and Peter Pan without Wendy, and with four "wild guys" standing in for the lost boys -- is pretty much the standard material of situation comedies. Four guys, with nothing in common except their gender, start off into the woods for a weekend "encounter session," of the kind popularized in the last decade or so by the poet Robert Bly, the bard of the "men's movement." Of course they get lost, and of course they confront their own fears and emotions and of course there's a virtually endless stream of jokes -- many of them pretty funny -- both about the men's movement and coming out of it. On the one hand, we're invited to laugh at the flood of cliches about what it means to be a man, and how men in our culture are so hard done by -- and, on the other hand, and at the same time, to laugh about things the men's movement finds appalling: emasculating women, a dehumanizing work culture, stereotyping of males.

The script presents Walter Learning's company with some strong challenges. Only one of the characters is truly consistent -- the local grocer who acts as their incompetent guide, Stewart. He is played with a wonderfully laconic bumpkin style by Norm Foster. His character is essentially a one-note foil for the other, more pretentious characters: he deflates their ideas with practicalities, centered around beer and flatulence, and with his skepticism about the whole movement. "Body work," to him, means auto body work, and a men's weekend means drinking beer and throwing up. "This isn't some kind of weird cult, is it?" he asks. Foster's body language and timing are fine -- he certainly does know how, and when, to tip a beer bottle up.

The other three characters are more challenging, in part because more obviously inconsistent. In order to keep the laughs rolling, Wreggitt and Shaw recurrently have them poking fun at things that they take quite seriously only a few minutes later, or exhibiting traits -- fear of heights, fear of bears, fear of water -- which are pulled out of a hat for a laugh and then ignored.

Paul Brown's "Robin," the most obvious caricature of the four men, is a men's movement groupie who's tried all the New Age fads -- sensitivity training, primal therapy, crystal gazing, "past-life regression workshops" and transcendental meditation -- and is still in search of his masculinity. I thought at first that Brown was playing him as gay, but this play completely -- and somewhat surprisingly -- ignores the whole issue of homosexuality, and much of the laughter around Robin is directed in a startlingly dated way at his effeminacy. But Brown is an excellent physical comedian, with a wonderfully expressive face, and managed to make me forget that I had wondered about his eagerness for a "group hug" after the others helped him over his fear of stepping into a mountain stream.

Randall, the lawyer, as played by Ralph Small, is the most practical of the four. He's come along mainly as a way of escaping having to go on a triathlon with his current younger girlfriend, and his ironic take on Robin's rich fantasy life affords some of the play's funniest lines. When Robin says he deliberately didn't bring any food, so that they could experience finding their own in the wilderness, Randall responds, "What are we looking for, free-range chickens?" And, when Robin bursts into tears, "This isn't fair. This is how women get out of arguments." Presented with the impossible problem of having this character suddenly paralyzed by a fear of heights, however, or almost as suddenly accepting of Robin's wimpiness, Small gives it his best shot, which is close to convincing, but doesn't quite make the character feel whole.

Ted Follows has perhaps the most difficult role, as Andy, the organizer of the trip and the most consistent spouter of cliches and psychobabble, the designated spokesperson for the "men's movement." I was disappointed; on opening night Follows' timing seemed off and his performance somehow not as large as I had expected, or as the character of Andy seems to demand. He's not only the main voice of the men's movement in the play, but also the one who has to convince us all that we're to take seriously, as the sort of "moment of truth" these weekends are supposed to produce, his sudden confession that his wife is unfaithful and his son is a violation of all the values he holds most dear.

At this moment, and a number of others where the script suddenly asks us to take seriously exactly the kinds of ideas we've been laughing at all evening, the company, under Walter Learning's experienced direction, manages, by the sheer force of the production -- pacing, blocking, the skillful timing of silences -- to keep us from laughing. But even so I couldn't help wondering what Andy had been doing at all those earlier encounter weekends, if not making this same confession.

There were other questions I wondered about -- why, if you were lost and looking for a lake, would you try to cross a stream rather than follow it? Why would any of these people simply keep wandering about in the woods after it was perfectly clear they were lost?

But these questions didn't interfere with my enjoyment. Much of the reason was D'Arcy Poultney's superlative set, which told us that we weren't to take the "lost in the woods" business -- or even the bear which prowls around the four wild guys' camp -- all that seriously. It did this, and provided a wonderfully useful acting space, by not being naturalistic at all: Poultney gives us just a raked acting space with a variety of movable rectangular objects, which could -- and did -- represent various kinds of wilderness terrain. This is surrounded by cutout silhouettes of trees, often backlit, in and out of which the lost guys can trail around hopelessly.

I found the music a bit cute (signalling that it's raining by playing "Raindrops Keep Falling on Your Head," for example) and the lighting inconsistent (blackouts, fades, and semidarkness all seemed randomly distributed among the scene breaks). Still, the set, the consistently fast pace and the inexhaustible supply of one-liners kept me from being overly distracted.

The enthusiastic response of the opening night audience -- a shouting and whistling standing ovation -- suggested that not many others were much bothered by those problems, either.

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