Knives on the table
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The room is a barely dressed wound. Kate Boyd's set for the New Conservatory Theater Centre's sharp-toothed production of "Late Company" instantly establishes director Evren Odcikin's tone for the evening. The matching wallpaper and carpeting in Debora and Michael Shaun-Hastings' formal dining room are a ferocious shade of red, overlain with a pretty pattern of pale blue ribbons and abstracted flowers. This ornamentation feels like the flimsiest of barriers, tenuously holding back the looming crimson.
Debora (Desiree Rogers) is a sculptor; her preferred medium is steel, her default demeanor steely. Michael (Lawrence Radecker) is a conservative member of Canada's Parliament. Their dinner guests are the more middle-class Dermot family: protective mother Tamara (Cheryl Smith), pragmatic father Bill (Kenneth Heaton) and justifiably reticent teenage son Curtis (Baela Tinsley).
We quickly learn that a year prior to the tension-fraught gathering that plays out over these 80 real-time minutes, the Shaun-Hastings' own son, Joel, committed suicide. Known throughout high school for posting YouTube videos of his drag lipsyncs and for his standard hallway greeting of "Hey, faggot!," Joel was ostracized and bullied by classmates, culminating in their smearing of shit on his locker shortly before he took his life. Among the ringleaders of Joel's torment: Curtis Dermot.
The families' supper-cum-summit is ostensibly an opportunity for healing. The two mothers have agreed to have Curtis and the Shaun-Hastings read each other letters laying bare their respective shame and anguish. But the pained politesse of this ceremony proves even more superficial than the decor's ornamentation. The couples' rage, grief and desire to lay blame come crashing through.
The hosts have cooked up a dinner of pasta in scallop cream sauce. But doesn't Debora remember her email, wonders Tamara, the one in which she mentioned Curtis' extreme shellfish allergy? Did the road-warrior work of Parliament membership keep Michael away from home most of the time? queries Bill, insinuating that Joel lacked an engaged male role model. How could professionally ambitious Debora be oblivious to her depressed son's video persona, which fluttered with red flags as much as rainbow ones?
Since Joel's suicide, Curtis has been plagued, both by his own conscience and by the press, which has portrayed him as an irredeemable villain. He's been unable to focus at school and is plagued by nightmares. Yet after Curtis reads his apologetic letter, Debora insists he's insincere. The cold sweat that he awakens in every night, she hisses, is composed of her tears. Who's the bully now?
"Late Company" could easily be performed, and possibly be quite satisfying, as a play about attitudes toward homophobia and bullying across generations. But director Odcikin has cunningly elevated the subtext of playwright Jordan Tannahill's crafty script: This is also a play about the performances we all enact in everyday life, the flimsy veils of sometimes hypocritical civility we hang between our gut feelings and our social interactions.
Tannahill's choice of a traditional dinner party as the arena for psychological bloodsport is ingenious; it's the perfect venue for a tragedy of manners. Odcikin keenly underscores the fact that not just his cast but their characters are performing roles: His production opens with all of the players filing onto stage in character, then exiting before Tannahill's scripted action begins. When dinner is served, Odcikin conspicuously chooses not to have any food on the plates. The characters fork away at empty white dishes. There's no nourishment in their pretense.
Among a first-rate cast, Desiree Rogers is masterful as Debora, revealing the character's internal battles as clearly as her external arguments. Baela Tinsley brings sly subtlety to the largely silent Curtis; as the play comes to an unexpected ending, you'll rethink the few words he has said. "Late Company" cuts deep.
Late Company, through Feb. 24 at NCTC. Tickets from $28: (415) 861-8972. www.nctsf.org