A couple of years ago Toronto playwright Morwyn Brebner took Vancouver theatre by stormwith Little Mercy’s First Murder, a film noir musical that turned the familiar conventions of the genre brilliantly inside out. Brebner’s follow-up, The Optimists, attempts to re-imagine Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This time she has written a pale imitation of the original, a play that challenges its cast to make a static situation and unpleasant people dramatically interesting.
The most attractive character here is Teenie, played with lovable naivety by rising star Anastasia Phillips. She’s the sweet-natured half of a low-rent couple who met at the car dealership where they work and have come to Las Vegas to be married. Groom-to-be Chick (an edgy John Murphy), addicted to alcohol and gambling, claims to have been saved by Teenie’s love. He’s entered a “program,” so he says, though that doesn’t stop him from drinking himself into a stupor in a city where his gambling addiction may be a slight problem.
Teenie chose Vegas so she could watch and bet on U.S. college basketball games—though why she couldn’t do that back home in Mississauga is never explained. She and Chick plan to celebrate their wedding with a breakfast at Denny’s.
Joining them in their ugly, generic hotel room (not a keeper for designer Ted Roberts’ portfolio) is Chick’s superficially successful best friend, tightly wound-up oncologist Doug (Scott Bellis). He and Chick argue over whose life-choices have been worse in a dreary stretch of the first act which Teenie spends passed out in an offstage bedroom.
The dynamic improves significantly in act two with the surprise appearance of Doug’s psychiatrist wife, Margie (Jillian Fargey). The play’s George and Martha, Doug and Margie are brutally, miserably unhappy and awful to each other. Chick joins in their nasty gamesmanship and betrayals while Teenie, like Albee’s Honey, looks on appalled.
Brebner’s dialogue is neither as witty nor as lacerating as Albee’s, her characters neither as funny nor as horrifying, her situation not half as powerful. Yet the fine cast keeps us mostly engaged in the characters’ shenanigans. This despite director Rachel Ditor’s staging, which punctuates the talk only by someone’s pouring drinks or storming off into a bedroom.
And why does the playwright even bother to evoke Vegas’ wealth of dramatic possibilities when the characters never leave their room? They might just as well have spent the night in the Mississauga Hilton.
The play’s title is explained in a final monologue delivered with great brio by Murphy’s Chick. Marriage is a gamble—not unlike going to the theatre. You win some and lose some, but you have to stay optimistic.