The advertising executive is a popular Hollywood character type because his (or, less often, her) superficially glamorous job jams up so dramatically against his personal life. How does someone who operates professionally in a world of fakery—doing anything to sell a product—maintain any personal integrity?
The apparently high-pressure, cutthroat nature of the advertising world drives the plot. The ad exec, desperate to get or keep the account, surrounded by sharks who want his job, has no room for genuine relationships, the kind that require commitment and attention. Inevitably, the character awakens to this realization and chooses emotional honesty over professional success.
Michelle Riml’s new play builds some clever and interesting twists around these stock premises. But neither they nor the sterling cast of Andrew McIlroy’s Arts Club production prove quite enough to overcome the stereotypes at the heart of Poster Boys.
The luminous Lois Anderson plays Caroline, the exec at Vancouver’s Zenspiration Agency charged with creating a new campaign for Clearwater, a local credit union modeled closely on VanCity. A brisk opening montage shows middle-aged (but fit and gorgeous) Caroline creating the slogan “authentic aging” for a line of beauty products as she simultaneously stuffs falsies in her bra.
Successful and expensively dressed, Caroline is also driven and unhappy. She bonks her cute, ambitious assistant Brad (Luke Camilleri, doing his best with a seriously underdeveloped character), but she fears his youth and competition. She suffers severe anxiety attacks, hallucinating a cheesy cross-dressed alter ego (Daniel Arnold) who gives her advice. What’s a girl to do besides pop Atavan?
When Caroline decides to brand Clearwater as gay-friendly, Brad recruits a male couple, Jack (Scott Bellis) and Carson (Arnold again), as poster boys for the campaign. They have their issues, gay Catholic Carson especially. It also turns out that Caroline and Jack had a romantic relationship back before he came out. Crank up Caroline’s anxiety-meter.
Although Caroline is the play’s theatrical centre, Riml seems more interested in Jack and Carson, fleshing out their characters and relationship more fully than hers. Despite Anderson’s heroic efforts, Caroline and her world remain two-dimensional. As Carson, Arnold flirts dangerously with gay stereotypes but keeps him mostly onside. Jack is the only fully believable character thanks to a beautifully confident performance by Bellis, embodying a real-life range of complexities and contradictions.
The production is enlivened by an excellent series of pop songs and Jamie Nesbitt’s dynamic projections. There’s also a brilliant sequence (with Bellis particularly amazing) where Caroline “rewinds” a dinner scene we’ve seen Jack and Carson videotape. It’s the one moment when this live stage play fully transcends its Hollywood models.