Benevolence, the new Morris Panych comedy currently running at the Tarragon, seems to have nothing to do with an act resembling anything good or kind. Handing money to a stranger can be considered a relatively neutral act — unless the giver chooses to implicate themselves in the life of the givee. In a world constantly struggling with notions of the politically correct it is difficult to know what to call street people asking for money for fear of marginalizing them even further. Beggars? Panhandlers? Freelance self-employed fundraisers? Panych’s script falls prey to this dilemma, asking what do we do with panhandlers and how do we define them?
A Globe and Mail interview included in the press kit goes on at length on this issue. Arthur Schafer, a “professional and applied ethics” expert at the University of Manitoba, considers legislation against the rights of panhandlers “morally perplexing” and suggests that the problem lies, in part, with slow moving and negligent urban planning coupled with the escalating disenfranchisement of the poor. Schafer insists that recent laws restricting the practice in downtown Winnipeg violate the rights of citizens who politely ask for assistance. Panych’s new play, however, is not concerned with the rights of a polite poor person. His panhandler character, Terence, maliciously takes control of the life of Oswald, an unassuming orthotics salesman. This one-dimensional approach to character motivation has, perhaps unintentionally, created a play populated by very unlikable people.
Stephen Ouimette, as Terence the beggar, delivers a committed and energetic performance. But he may have been directed to stay far enough away from risky stereotypes that he misses the potential for zany, idiosyncratic characterization. Jennifer Wigmore, as the restrained and remote love interest of Oswald, the panhandler’s victim, might have pushed her very adept portrayal a little closer to, say, the almost caricature-like reserve of Bebe Neuwirth’s Lilith in order to heighten the comedy. Tom Rooney’s Oswald, the beleaguered salesman who innocently gives Terence $100, is very strong, but should have been a scratching post for a cast of wild and enigmatic characterizations. Gina Wilkinson’s streetwalker, although bold and skillful in her comic physicality, cannot, like her very capable fellow cast members, transcend a script that has not yet found its way.
The set by Ken MacDonald engages from the moment you enter the theatre, yet all of the sound and lighting potential that a small derelict old porn cinema suggests just doesn’t come across as it takes a back seat to very predictable plotlines. There are some extremely funny moments and the tone, at least initially, fosters a genuine interest in what might happen next. But nothing much does. The ending is laid out long before it arrives and seems a pat anticlimax.
With sharper characterizations and plot focus, the glimmers of whacky screwball comedy that frequently surface could render the play hilarious and thought provoking. As it stands it takes a seemingly apolitical pose that lapses into a malevolent and perplexing commentary on benevolence. Given the seriousness of the issues being addressed, the joke should have been on us. Unfortunately, the joke is not fully written.