Patrick Cargill’s Don’t Misunderstand Me, currently presented as a co–production by Act 4 Productions and Theatre Burlington, is the story of a charming Englishman named Charles Fleminge, who cheated on his wife of twenty years while on a New York business trip, then discreetly dumped his American fling, returned home and carried on as if nothing happened. Except, shockingly, his fling has tracked him down, blissfully oblivious of his marriage, because the loveable scamp lied to her by “borrowing” the true story of his brother’s messy divorce as his own. That his fling’s name is similar to that of his brother’s new wife, who was supposed to be joining the Fleminges for dinner on this particular evening but has been delayed, only serves to add to the WHACKY shenanigans that ensue as that silly Charles, reluctantly aided by his brother, tries to cover his own ass so that nobody realizes the nature of his affair.
The play falls into a particular theatrical subgenre which I personally cannot stand: the revolving–door mistaken identity drawing room farce. Unlike, say, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which keeps its mistaken identity hijinks simple and mercifully brief amidst a larger story, this sort of play hinges entirely upon those mix–ups not being easily resolved by its characters, drawing the confusion out for as long as humanly possible, warping what may have started as a simple misunderstanding into a veritable Gordian Knot of entrances, exits, and absurd leaps in logic by all parties involved. It is, to be frank, the kind of play I find utterly insufferable.
To Cargill’s credit, there is a decent–if–predictable twist at the end of the first act, and a second genuinely surprising and clever twist at the end of the show. Those twists don’t make up for the onslaught of familiar plot points and equally tired jokes and gags; nor do they compensate for the increasingly uncomfortable sexual politics of watching a man elaborately deceiving two women he claims to care for in order to maintain existing lies he claims were told for the sake of his “happy marriage”.
Still, whatever issues I have with the play itself do not extend to the production as a whole. In spite of the limitations of the material, director Peter Lloyd and his cast and crew have managed to work within them, to generally positive results.
As they move about the confines of Dan Megaffin’s pastel–coloured set, itself pleasant to look at in its minimalist charm (the hanging painting by Mark Collis adds a touch of class), the players keep the energy high at all times, delivering otherwise familiar punchlines with enough gusto and enthusiasm to elicit laughs from the crowd, this reviewer included. There are some awkward stretches of silence during moments of minimal onstage activity, and the timing of a particular entrance/exit gag sequence could be tightened up, but on the whole, it’s a solidly paced, expertly performed piece.
All of the actors play their characters broad and unerringly within type, yet this does not prove to be a flaw: Steph Christaens portrays American fling Jaynie as a ditzy airhead, but not so much as to be cartoonishly inauthentic: Carla Zabek’s prim–and–proper rendering of Charles’ wife Margery occasionally softens, revealing layers of complexity beneath an otherwise broadly stern façade; Andy Dumas as Charles’ brother Robert is oddly restrained given the character’s outgoing nature, yet this proves to be a fine contrast to the almost apoplectic befuddlement Julian Ford invests in Charles. An otherwise despicable character, Ford plays him throughout as genuinely overwhelmed by his circumstances, and his chemistry with Zabek speaks to a genuinely loving marriage of several years. Indeed, the chemistry between all the actors is believable and palpable, right down to the unexpected friendship that develops between Jaynie and Robert’s wife Jane (the latter portrayed by Jaclyn Scobie, who is generally hilarious, and can throw a death–glare like nobody’s business).
There is clearly a lot of care and effort that went into this production from everyone involved, and for this reviewer, that effort elevated Don’t Misunderstand Me from an utterly insufferable viewing experience to being marginally tolerable. Those who don’t share my grievances with this style of play will be able to better appreciate the fruits of their labours.V
Don’t Misunderstand Me
Written by: Patrick Cargill
Directed by: Peter Lloyd
Playing at: Theatre Burlington (2311 New Street, Burlington)
Showtimes: May 30, 31, June 1 @ 8PM
Box Office: 905-639-7700