Texts of broadcast reviews for THE VALLEY and WINNERS AND LOSERS

by Lynn on November 15, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two reviews were broadcast on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. The Valley plays at the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace until December 15. Winners and Losers plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs until December 8.

The guest host was Phil Taylor.


Good Friday morning. Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer has been to the theatre, of course. Hi Lynn


Hi Phil


What are you going to tell us about this week?


Two plays. First is The Valley by Joan MacLeod at the Tarragon Theatre, that could have come from the headlines. A play about two families and mental illness.

The other play of sorts is Winners and Losers by Marcus Youssef and James Long, who also perform it, at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs. It’s about capitalism, brutal honesty, competition and friendship


Let’s start with The Valley.


It’s written by Joan MacLeod. MacLeod champions the ordinary folk trying to make sense of their world; trying to come to grips with a dilemma. In previous plays she’s explored teenage bullying and coping with aging with dignity.

In her program note for The Valley MacLeod writes:  “In the end, this play resides on the same turf as most of my work—that is looking at an issue through the lens of family—or in the case of The Valley two families—and trying to figure out what makes them, and all of us, connected.”

The play begins with the four characters remembering their various interactions with the police. Some of those recollections are as victims of a crime that needed police intervention. Others are as people breaking the law in which the police intervened to protect society at large.

At the centre of The Valley is Connor. He is eighteen years old, a writer of fantasy stories; who goes off to university, full of promise and enthusiasm.  It doesn’t work out. He comes home for the holidays and announces to his mother, Sharon (his parents are divorced) he’s going to drop out of school. He is not forthcoming with what has happened. As much as his mother tries to pry it out of him, Connor becomes more introverted and unreachable.

The other family in the play is Dan and Janie, a young couple with a seven month old baby. Janie is trying with difficulty coping with being at home with only the baby as company. She is also a recovered drug addict.

When Dan comes home Janie wants to talk about her day, to talk to an adult. Dan’s had a stressful day too and doesn’t want to hear how bad her day is.

And then the worlds of these two families collide? Connect?


How so??


One day Connor is on the subway swinging what looks like a baton at the others on the train.  In fact it’s really a stiff tube of wrapped fliers he’s supposed to distribute. The police are called. Dan is one of them.

Connor is obviously in some kind of mental state. Dan tries to calm him down until Connor swings at him and Dan has to forcibly take him down and handcuff him. In the process Connor’s jaw is broken.

One is quick to think of too much police force. Mental illness appears in many guises. And yes we think of all the recent news headlines in which people with mental illness posed a threat and were shot by police.

But MacLeod is such a subtle, thoughtful writer she knows that there are many sides to every story and she reveals them with patience until we see the truth. MacLeod always puts a human face on the issues she examines and she deals with them with sensitivity, fairness and compassion.

Connor, Sharon, Dan and Janie are ordinary people trying to cope with difficulty. They could be the people we sit next to at the theatre. In a wonderful piece of stage business, director Richard Rose has the cast enter the theatre as the audience does and sit with the audience in the seats around the playing area. They are innocuous, until they take their place centre stage and tell of their recollections of the police.  As the play unfolds the characters not in a scene take their seats and watch the play with us.


It certainly is sobering subject matter. How’s the production?


Terrific. As Connor, Colin Mercer is that articulate, eager kid, who turns into a troubled, depressed young man; who flinches when his mother tries to reach out to him. Mercer beautifully realizes Connor’s anguish and draws the audience in.

As Sharon, his mother, Susan Coyne is wonderful in showing both her exasperation and frustration in dealing with her son. Sharon is a caring woman but initially clumsy in recognizing Colin’s deep distress and how to deal with it. When she finally does it’s heart-squeezing.

We get an interesting perspective on Dan the police officer and his challenging home life, and certainly as played by Ian Lake. Dan has a hugely stressful job and comes home to a wife who has her own mental issues to deal with. In Lake’s nuanced performance we see a man trying to deal with his challenging work and family with patience and understanding, but at times being over whelmed.

And finally as Janie, Michelle Monteith brings out her quivery angst. Janie is a woman trying desperately to hold it together, cope, hang on, and it’s all revealed in Monteith’s quietly stunning performance.

The Valley is a gripping, emotional play that will have you shifting your allegiance from one character to another as the truth is revealed. It’s written by the gifted Joan MacLeod who always looks into the heart of an issue and sees the truth in many guises; who reveals her characters with all their frailties and flaws, and connects us all as a result.


And tell us about Winners and Losers. You call it a play of sorts. What does that mean?


It means that it’s not a play really. It’s a game in which the writers of it are Marcus Youssef and James Long who play themselves.

Youssef and Long have a lot in common. They are both playwrights, actors and long-time friends. Both married (Youssef is common law), both have two children.

They have fashioned a game in which one throws out a topic such as China, Pamela Anderson, the rich vs. the poor etc. and one will call it either a winner or a loser with a reason and the other might challenge that concept or not.

Initially it’s easy banter; the topics are wide-ranging and provocative. But soon we see the competitive nature in both of them and especially James (Jamie) Long. They play a game of ping pong. Long likes winning at all cost. And matters become personal as well.

Long struggled to get where he got financially and chides Youssef because he comes from a privileged background. Youssef tells Long he’s (Long) very angry in his dealings. Long lobes back an insult to Youssef. Serious dealings with not the same humour as the beginning.


If it’s not a play but a game, can you talk about a production?


Sure, because the whole thing is contrived. There is a long table and two chairs, one at each end. In a far dark corner there are props they will need—books, bottles of beer. When they enter they carry two bells to ding each time they’ve make a point. They each take turns drawing a chalk frame on the floor around the table and chairs—a ring of some sort?

It’s directed by Chris Abraham who I’m sure tweaked a delivery here and stance there. And he has directed the tone to change gradually. The table is moved to the side and the two now sit in the two chairs close together.

Long is the more confident, perhaps arrogant one, with his legs spread and he leans back in his chair. Youssef seems more contained, with his legs together more often than not. Both are glib but Long has the edge on attitude.


What’s the point?


Beats me. They don’t tell us the parameters of what is a winner or loser, except in their own particular argument. And initially why bother? Pamela Anderson as a subject of debate? And while they each ring the bell after a point or argument is made, I had to wonder why they needed the bell at all since they don’t keep score.

Shouldn’t there be a score? I must tell you for all of it it just seemed like two young boys peeing on a wall to see who could squirt the highest and longest.

If it’s performance art, then it seems self-indulgent between two guys riffing on their own cleverness. What does that have to do with us? Why should we care about their angst and concerns since it’s not applicable to our larger world?

It’s one charming, but angry man, challenging and running down the other who is mindful of his privilege in life, and thinking he has to explain himself to his friend.

Winners and Losers is self-indulgent twaddle. A loser.


Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at www.slotkinletter.com

The Valley plays at Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until December 15.


Winners and Losers plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until Dec. 8.


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