Toronto
2 min

Pills pops highs & lows

From supercharged wit & menace to bathetic melodrama

DISENFRANCHISED AT CHRISTMAS. Pills has a Joe Orton feel. Credit: Xtra files

James Harkness’s Pills, a very black comedy about chemical and sexual addiction, is hardly a finished work, but it strikes enough theatrical sparks in three relatively brief scenes to illuminate small corners or our aberrant compulsions.



Jason is disenfranchised with Christmas, bored with life in general, and hostile to the invisible but very audible “old troll” of an East European lady who lives upstairs. Jason is anxiety prone: Off his medication, he is neurotically disturbed by the sight of a dead mouse which he imagines has been poisoned by the troll. And he worries that his lover, Bill, a well-muscled garage mechanic, will be crushed by one of the cars he works under.



Plainly, he cannot abide being left alone and teeters close to chaos. In his blue Mickey Mouse T-shirt and mismatched socks, he smokes cigarettes and swigs scotch while ineptly attempting to decorate a spindly Christmas tree.



His lover (played with restraint by Tony Nappo) has a more balanced temperament, but even he flirts with danger. In the second scene, which begins with a marvelously eerie and wry satire on two coke-addicted schoolteachers from Etobicoke, Bill is cruised in a public park by the beefy Ron. The sexual encounter degenerates into sadistic violence as Ron’s female colleague, Marie, hungry for monumental excitement, watches.



This scene combines wit and menace, supercharged lyricism and raw realism.



It has the flaky force of a Sam Shepard and the mannerist decadence of a Joe Orton – giving strong evidence of a playwright with potential.



It is also the best acted scene, as Sky Gilbert and Caroline Gillis combine for a duologue of understated satire before carrying the scene into a lush, baroque, virtually surreal encounter of thwarted yearning, frustrated rage and orgiastic ecstasy.



The final scene, where a blood-splattered Jason in briefs and bare feet enjoys an orange while listening to classical music, becomes melodrama about a loonie who has killed the old woman upstairs. Neither Gil Garratt’s acting nor Harkness’s writing rises above clich├ęs of loneliness and brutal anarchy. And as the black comedy is trowelled on thickly, the bathos lingers – most palpably in the final line uttered by Bill as he embraces his murderous lover.



This sort of love needs to be aired differently if it is to get beyond the banal smell of Jason’s old shirts. It is hardly the dramatic closure to serve what, under John Palmer’s direction, is sometimes a rewardingly disturbing minimalist work.



Pills continues at the Factory Theatre Studio (125 Bathurst St) till Sun, Dec 19; call (416) 504-9971.