When our altruism is driven by self-serving motives, do we still make the grade for good will? In his sharp, political comedy Generous, Canadian playwright Michael Healey gets to the guts of our benevolent impulses and takes no prisoners (no matter how charitable). Delivered here in a polished European premiere at the Finborough, Generous is a great play gone outstanding.
Given the moral subject matter of Healey's comic offering, his choice to set sail in the cut-throat ring of politics raises questions. (It seems doubtful that the phrase "do good" ever rang true through the halls of parliament.) Nonetheless, Generous adeptly takes on the apparent oxymoron of altruistic politics through a set of interconnected vignettes loosely inspired by past Canadian parliament and the particular failings of short-lived Prime Minister, Joe Clark.
Generous gets off to an electric start as a disgruntled crew of cabinet ministers gathers post-vote to rail against the defeat of their latest budget and, consequently, each other. In the heat of comic combat, heritage minister Cathy Freeman (Meghan Popiel) confesses to stabbing a backbencher as per an off-hand remark made by the PM. (And yes, former Canadian leader Brian Mulroney once uttered the phrase "Slit her throat"; thankfully, his ministers weren't living life in the literal lane.) The first vignette peaks, however, when chief of staff Eric Poole (Scott Christie) reveals the shocking impetus behind his political endeavours: TO DO GOOD. Should the offshoot of such superior benevolence be a healthy sense of self-importance, so be it.
From this point on, Generous follows thematic suit as we meet a bevy of characters compelled to "help". Acclaimed writer Healey crafts a tight narrative, punctuated by an easy conversational style, irresistible one-liners and decidedly human interactions. What works best, however, is a gradual reveal of the misguided morality driving his characters and the consequent questions it prompts us to ask of our own seemingly benevolent intentions.
Healey's first-rate script has met its match in the creative team at the Finborough. Director Eleanor Rhode navigates Generous' complexities with ease, guiding her actors towards perfect comic pitch and pacing while also skillfully mining choice moments of essential gravitas. Rhode also deserves credit for clear, efficient staging in the Finborough's limited playing space.
Given this production's talented cast, however, the director's job seems that much easier. Though the actors excel as an ensemble, certain performances earn standout status. Jane Perry is perfection as an unrelenting man-eater whose brush with mortality prompts a fear-induced case of charitable fever. Perry is at her best when revealing the unexpected vulnerabilities behind an otherwise ball-busting femme fatale. Richard Beanland also hits the mark as fledgling law clerk Alex Flemming; his deliciously neurotic take on Flemming's ramblings make the character's habitual first date confessions of true love nearly forgivable. Rounding off the standouts is Scott Christie in the role of seemingly earnest Canuck journalist David Paul. Christie handles Paul's development from newbie to hardened pro with ease, making us wonder if any of Healey's characters can ever safely escape suspicion.
So how, then, does Generous answer its central moral question? In a final quirky yet stirring monologue, our struggling law clerk spells it out (a dénouement device that risks imminent implosion in the hands of a lesser playwright). Healey makes it work, nonetheless, delivering his edict point blank: what does it matter why we help, as long as we're helping? Ultimately, though, the question is open to alternate answers, making this production must-see material for those whose passion for great theatre is paralleled only by the love of a rousing post-show debate.
Playing until 30th January 2010