The plot sounds formulaic as all get-out, doesn’t it?
Two gay guys, tired of big city Toronto, move to a small town and open a bed and breakfast in an old house. They encounter a mix of acceptance and hostility in their new surroundings, struggle with everything from an endless reno to guests from hell, and have to make a momentous decision a year after opening their business.
But Mark Crawford’s rom-com Bed and Breakfast (even the title suggests a certain predictability) subverts the formulaic in delightful fashion. In the process, the two-actor, multi-character show spotlights the foulness of homophobia and fear of the “other,” celebrates diversity, home and love, and remains reassuringly rooted in the quotidian.
Crawford plays Brett, an uptight interior designer bored with his banal job. Paul Dunn is Drew, whose natural buoyancy is being crushed by his thankless front desk job in a swanky hotel. The connection between Brett and Drew is deep and credible from the get-go, doubtless nourished by Crawford and Dunn’s real-life partnership.
When Brett’s aunt dies, he inherits her home in an unnamed small town (to this reviewer, that town could easily be leafy Gananoque, where the show premiered in 2015 at Thousand Islands Playhouse under the direction of Ashlie Corcoran, who also directs this production with a loving but firm hand).
Brett’s initial impulse is to sell the house and put the money into a Toronto home, but then the idea of a B&B pops up. “How hard can it be?” enthuses his partner in a bit of foreshadowing that could sound contrived but, in Crawford’s hands, is, like so much else in this play, fresh and funny.
As the two forge ahead, their fish-out-of-water state inevitably calling to mind Rod Beattie in the Wingfield Farm series, we meet a cavalcade of townspeople, all played by Crawford and Dunn. There’s Doug, the taciturn, gay-averse contractor who’s doing their reno. There’s big-hearted, over-sharing coffee shop owner Alison. There’s teenage Dustin, who’d rather make cupcakes than play sports and lives with his divorced, emoticon-loving mother Carrie, a real estate agent.
These and other characters often verge on caricature, but Crawford walks that balance beam with elegance. The caricature elements grab our attention, but scratch the surface of these townsfolk and rich, complex lives emerge, including an unexpected gay substrate.
Those lives engage us, make us want to know even more about them, and underscore Crawford’s point that the superficial and stereotyped characterization of others – gay or straight or elderly or whatever – does them a grave injustice and cheats us of discovering the texture and variety of life.
Rebecca Picherack’s lighting, practically a character unto itself, and John Gzowski’s sound design amplify that texture and variety.
Crawford and Dunn depict the show’s 20-odd characters and the transitions between them pretty much flawlessly. They do it on Dana Osborne’s minimalist set that’s basically a bed that becomes a car that becomes Santa’s sleigh (don’t ask) all with no props (the miming is seamless).
That minimalism is apropos, since the show is very much about stripping away the superfluous and, like a good interior designer, getting to what really matters.
One of the things that really matters, it turns out, is a small town’s big secret. It does come out, of course – Crawford handles both the concealment and revelation skillfully, eschewing the coyness into which he might have slipped – and with the same blend of upset and new possibilities that accompany the moment a gay person finally steps out of the closet.
Crawford darkens his story with moments of real or perceived threat: The slur hurled at Drew by a truck driver, mysterious phone calls, an ugly incident as Christmas approaches. One of these leads to the show’s single moment of overkill, when Brett’s reaction at the end of Act One would have been far more effective had Corcoran reined in Crawford.
The playwright also takes a stab at Fawlty Towers-like chaos on the B&B’s opening weekend. It’s a scene of hilarious, escalating farce, beautifully timed as Dunn and Crawford make quicksilver character transitions and the enterprise seems destined for doom.
All comes right in the end – this is a rom-com, after all. While there’s nothing profound about the show, it also never pretends to be more than it is. And that’s very satisfying.
Bed and Breakfast is a partnership with Arts Club Theatre Company. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until Dec. 22. Tickets and information: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196, gctc.ca.