“Let’s do it! Let’s fall in love!” chirp Ben and Airlea in the Highland Arts Theatre’s current production of Scott Sharplin’s comedy drama, First Time Last Time. Ben remembers it as the Cole Porter song his mom sang to him. Airlea only knows it from Joan Jett’s rocking out cover version.
They “meet cute” in a Halifax club where the pounding bass of the house music is meant to sift the loneliest males into a pile with the “desperatist” females. Ben is an earnest university student and into plaid shirts; Airlea works retail and is into death fetish and extravagant wigs and live action role playing. After some witty, well-honed byplay, they fall into bed together, repeatedly, and make a pact to stay together but with no lying and no commitment.
Sharplin’s script follows them for the next fifteen years and the tacit policy of lies necessary to maintain the state of no commitment.
Sharplin’s script is funny and observant and plays with the theatricality of plays: Airlea and Ben address the audience directly as they recreate the pivotal scenes of their lives and occasionally provide some actor’s commentary. This works as a distancing device (as in Brecht) but creates an immediate rapport between the two characters and their “audience” (and I suppose their actual ticket buying audience which is the same group of people).
Airlea and Ben carry the burden of their parents’ wrecked marriages (although a little more info on that would have been enlightening) and the anticipated crash and burn of their friends’ relationships, so no lies and no commitment seems the sensible policy of pain avoidance.
Oh, foolish mortals.
The second act is darker and slower and less focused but no less witty complete with a hilarious, squirm-worthy moment of “audience participation”.
First, they have a quixotic adventure to have a baby for the most dubious of motives. Then deep in the second act, they (and the audience) confront a dark twist of fate that forces the couple to come clean about the truth of their relationship and themselves.
Sharplin bravely wants to avoid the cosy conventions of the romantic comedy but the concluding scenes of the play, some of which the audience applauded as if they were the play’s resolution, would have benefited from some pruning (including the loss or combining of one or two of them) to sharpen the rising drama.
But by then we have emotionally bought into the characters’ lives and want to face their battles with them.
This production has the enormous benefit of brilliant performances from Jenna Lahey as Airlea and Wesley Colford as Ben.
Lahey, in particular, easily essays the bigger arc of character going from desperate to shock club girl to neurotic “girlfriend” to confused thirty-something facing the dark horizon of the rest of her life. Besides bringing a laser guided precision aim of comedic timing to Sharplin’s smart dialogue, Lahey brought a playful and fearless physicality to Airlea (like her Fosse-esque spell invocations that always got a hearty audience belly laugh). She has a coup de theatre reveal late in the play that does a lot to sell the play’s sudden seriousness.
Colford, in one way, had the harder job: make the less physically and emotionally confident Ben as compelling as Airlea. Be the straight guy without simply becoming the straight man. Within this more confined character arc, Colford was Lahey’s equal partner in excellence with always fresh comedic line readings. Whether doing desperate push-ups to tone up before he and Airlea fall into bed, or a menacing brush past his girlfriend during a tense confrontation in a desolate, starless forest road, Colford was a strong physical presence.
Both performers had great onstage chemistry and their reactions as they listened to each other’s plaints, excuses, and endearments told much of Sharplin’s story.
Besides getting two of the island’s best actors to bring to life his characters, Sharplin shaped their performances into believable personalities. In a two actor play, he filled the stage with business (that never seemed like “business”) and, with stage manager Mary-Jean Doyle, created a set constructed of cardboard boxes that ably served as a bedroom, dance club, and mountain top.
While some may debate how the script resolves its many questions, this is a professional level production with extraordinarily touching and funny performances.
First Time Last Time has three more performances at the Highland Arts Theatre on Bentinck Street in Sydney: Friday, May 15, 8 pm (followed by a musical performance by James FW Thompson, Alicia Penney, and Dave Daix), Saturday, May 16, at 2 pm, and 8pm; the evening performance with John-Paul and the Grassfire as the post-performance musical guests.
The Sydney production is licensed (so only those 19 years and older can attend) and audiences are warned of Adult Language and some Sexual Content. Tickets can be purchased at the HAT Box Office (9am–5pm Monday-Friday), over the phone at (902) 565-3637, or by visiting highlandartstheatre.com.
In June, this production heads to Toronto, Ontario, for a run at the prestigious Theatre Passe Muraille. Besides using the Sydney production to raise funds for the tour production costs, First Time Last Time is promoting their online fundraising campaign through the popular “crowdsourcing” website, Indiegogo. Supporters can pledge money in exchange for “perks” including personalized souvenirs and tickets to the show in either city.