What happened was…

What Happened Was…

A play by Tom Noonan

Directed by Clayton Jevne

At Theatre Inconnu, ends March 8

Reviewed by Leah Callen

What if you were a fly on the wall during a frictional first date?  Noonan’s play invites the audience to peep into an open window as Jackie tries to bag her co-worker Michael in a sad attempt at romantic connection.  So used to being alone, at first our heroine doesn’t even hear her hero ring the doorbell.  But when Jackie opens the door to Michael, will he ever reciprocate?

The two characters make up stories to colour in the tedium of their actual lives, yet struggle to hear one another over the “mental static” in their own minds. One tries to rekindle a wild past and the other puffs up a non-existent past.  What’s peculiar:  each character seems unworried by the alarming traits that surface in the other. Whether it’s a confession that one hears subliminal voices in a Beatles song or a disturbing preoccupation with baby bones, not a single eyebrow is raised.  Ironically, these unsettling idiosyncrasies are the only charge the pair shares.  Weirdness turns them on.

The delicious icing on this theatrical cake is a nightmarish children’s story that Jackie serves Michael over dinner.  Much like the characters, I found myself hoping here for an entertaining shock, and it did not disappoint.  Though you expect something grotesque to scare off a man, Jackie’s Freudian fright somehow encourages Michael to unpack his own emotional skeletons.

The claustrophobic set itself is strangely menacing, with its palette of roses and ash. Everything is whitewashed and darkening around the edges, and door and window frames feel bare as bones.  When Jackie stands in the kitchen door frame, responding to verbal thrusts from her guest, I couldn’t help but think of a guillotine.

Catriona Black plays a woman who attacks her date with hungry enthusiasm.  The keenness of her character had me flashbacking to an edgy British cartoon I read in my youth, Minnie the Minx.  It feels like Jackie’s wearing a social mask, the one many wear on first dates when they’re trying too hard, and you wait for the moment when it dissolves.  Meanwhile, Michael Romano plays secretive Michael with cool, reptilian calm.  Right from the start, it’s clear these two are mismatched, yet Jackie forces the date forward, half in desperation and half in politeness.  The situation is wonderfully awkward.  Typical to life, the man is arrogant over nothing, and the woman is self-effacing over everything.

I hoped Michael was recording the conversation as he hinted, that he had some malevolent purpose beyond being a passive date. The voyeuristic pleasure of an audience watching an intimate moment feels watered-down when the main fall out is simply some hurt feelings.  Michael’s briefcase became a physical ruse to me, as I kept waiting for some sinister secret to be revealed, but he never opens it.  The real risk in this play is figurative:  people opening up to each other, not knowing whether that truth will be accepted or rejected.

Perhaps that is the dramatic cake underneath the icing: in our cubicled lives, we are so used to talking to ourselves and singing along to pre-written lyrics that we rarely risk being original and reaching out to other people. Romantic heroes and heroines no longer exist.  Most men just want to live safe lives where they’re told what to do, and women are left alone listening to their own echo.

Leah Callen is pursing her MFA in writing, with a drama focus.