By Deborah Rankin
We have often heard it said that we are our "brother's keeper", but when Tass Nazor (Holly Gauthier Frankel) is reminded of the biblical exhortation to be charitable she snaps, "Yes, but I'm not Mother Teresa!"
Tass has a problem. The one-time promising classical musician is trying to make ends meet by dabbling in the real estate market during a financial crisis. Her credit cards are maxed out. She owns a triplex that isn't making any money because her tenants aren't paying fair market-value on their flats. However, they won't move out even though their leases have run out.
Besides, they aren't even her neighbours. Tass may own property in the trendy Mile End neighbourhood, but she's holed up in a a basement apartment near the Big 'O'. Her building is in dire need of renovation and her problem is fast becoming a Big 'Owe'.
This is the central conceit of Triplex Nervosa, a screwball comedy with dark undertones written by Marianne Ackerman and playing at the Centaur Theatre (April 23-May 17). The 10-character 7-actor play directed by Roy Surette is at once a mischievous whodunit and a laugh-out-loud farce highlighting the language and cultural tensions that plague Montreal, with a dollop of existential angst.
Love of neighbour is a fine idea in principle but it won't pay the mortgage. Tass has to find some way to dislodge the motley crew of hangers-on, starting with Max Fishbone (Howard Rosenstein) who isn't even a tenant. He's a squatter who has taken over the third-floor flat of his dead son Lonnie, a talented but alienated musician whose ghostly presence haunts the play. Tass realizes that she may have to take drastic measures to fix things. This is where Rakie Ur (Karl Graboshas), a handyman of questionable origins, bent on taking matters into his own hands, comes in. However, Tass's moral dilemma is causing her to panic.
Billed as a comedy about "art, property, and the trials and tribulations of nouveau-hipster neighborhoods" in the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival program, Ackerman's latest theatrical offering - the last was Venus of Dublin in 2000, also at the Centaur - was part of Blue Met's Mile End Series featuring, among other things, the Mordecai Richler Walking Tour led by Charles Foran through Richler's old stomping ground, the setting for his most acclaimed novels such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
Ackerman is one of Montreal's most prolific writers: the journalist, Plateau playwright, and award-winning literary author's latest novel Holy Fools, set in rural Ontario, was also featured at Blue Met as part of the line-up at the annual Guernica Book Launch.
The members of the ensemble cast do an admirable job, with kudos going to Rosenstein for his seamless transition from the listless Max Fishbone - who is trying to recapture the lost relationship with his son by listening meditatively to Lonnie's mournful songs - to his portrayal of Max's brother Kevin Fishbone, a top Chicago lawyer who has come to Montreal to enquire into his family's troubling affairs and is soon taking Tass to task because her "house of cards is collapsing."
Cat Lemieux brings down the house for her portrayal of Mme. Boulanger - a real estate agent eager to sell the first floor of the triplex to the spoiled rich girl Alisha Tate (Kayleigh Choiniere) who has pretensions of being a serious painter and an eye on the second-floor tenant Damien-Marie de Beaufort (Brett Watson) whose life is as complicated as his name - but Lemieux really has them rolling in the aisles in her second role as Sgt. Germaine Tremblay, a doughnut-munching Québecoise cop who alternately speaks joual and broken English.
Ditto for Daniel Brochu in his role as Aaron Klein, the Hasidic Jewish former owner of the building, who spends most of his time nervously clutching his briefcase as he scurries about trying to avoid Tass, all the while professing his religious convictions. Brochu also does double duty in drag as Louisa Tate a.k.a. Alisha's mother, a snooty Westmount matron who sniffs out the property, to great comic effect.
James Lavoie's multi-purpose set artfully makes use of an iconic wrought-iron spiral staircase, giving the play an authentic feel. The large cast of colourful characters overshadows the plot somewhat, while a second sadder story seems to be trying to break through the surface of the zany antics and clichés, with Patrick Watson's melancholic soundtrack - a stand-in for Lonnie's songs - setting the at-times tragic mood.
In the end though, Triplex Nervosa is such good fun that it doesn't really matter if all the threads don't tie together into one perfect ball of confusion.
Triplex Nervosa at the Centaur Theatre
453 St. Francois Xavier (Old Montreal)
April 23-May 17
Last Night at the Gayete
The Centaur Theatre's - season is drawing to a close with its final production of Last Night at the Gayety, a musical comedy by Bowser & Blue which runs until May 22nd.