Review: Box 4901

by Lynn on March 4, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Brian Francis

Co-Created and directed by Rob Kempson

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Lighting by Cosette Pin

Sound and composition by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski

Performers: Colin Asuncion

Hume Baugh

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown

Keith Cole

Daniel Jelani Ellis

Jeff Ho

Michael Hughes

Indrit Kasapi

Daniel Krolik

Eric Morin

G. Kyle Shields

Chy Ryan Spain

Geoffrey Whynot

In 1992 novelist Brian Francis, then 21 and a student at the University of Western Ontario, placed an ad in the personal column of the London Free Press looking for companionship, a relationship, company, etc. He got many replies. He did not reply to 13 of them and now, 26 years later he does.

Brian Francis reads each letter out loud to us and then his reply. The letters to him range from being sweet, snarky, suggestive, open-hearted, funny, irreverent and representative of how gay men then, connected. When Francis replies, he does so from the lens of being 26 years older, mature-minded, funny, thoughtful and wise. He has found his comfort and confidence as a gay man in his world. He has that advantage over his often immature correspondents.

Brian Francis is now a successful novelist. Box 4901 is his first foray into theatre, both writing for it and performing in it. He also replies to his correspondents from the point of view of being a husband—he seems happily married to his husband. Sometimes the replies are long, funny and measured. Sometimes they are short and curt. We get a clear sense from the initial letter what the reply might be. Occasionally there is a surprise or two when we least expect it. That’s one of the many beauties of this poignant, moving show.

When I first saw the show at SummerWorks in 2018, the production then as now was  directed with care by Rob Kempson. Brandon Kleiman designed a rudimentary set for the 2018 production. With the present production, there is a spiffy white square frame on the floor inside which are three white benches.

Rob Kempson has the 13 ‘correspondents’ walk across the back of the frame and at various times assume a pose or get into a kind of formation that is never distracting and always serves the piece. Occasionally the men are arranged across the back of the frame or sit in the benches in posed formation. As Brian Francis reads each letter in turn, the man for whom it is intended approaches Francis, who is at a lectern outside the frame, listens and when the answer is finished, the correspondent then stands at the back, outside the frame. The area outside the frame at the back fills up as the men hear their reply, until the last man’s letter is read. We always wonder if one of these 13 men could have been Mr. Right and so does Mr. Francis.

There have been some cast changes since the play was first done in 2018. Each actor brings a different side to the letters.  What an intoxicating thing it is to see 13 gay actors breathe life, sex and heart into this intriguing show. Beautifully done again.

Produced by timeshare performance with support from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre:

From: Feb. 27, 2020.

Closes: March 8, 2020.

Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

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