THE LEISURE SOCIETY by François Archambault, directed by Ken Gass, with Irene Poole, Richard Zeppieri, Geoffrey Pounsett and Carolyne Maraghi. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 24) and runs to April 24, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday and April 23 at 2 pm. $25-$34, Sunday pwyc-$20, stu/srs discounts. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
It's a good thing actors Irene Poole and Geoffrey Pounsett like each other. After working together several times recently - including productions of Shakespeare and Marivaux - the two have a nasty go at each other in The Leisure Society.
Montrealer François Archambault's award-winning script takes place at an emotion-fraught dinner party. A married couple caught in a curdled relationship host a long-time acquaintance and the younger woman who's his current "special friend" - read fuck friend.
Poole plays the wife, Mary, Pounsett the party-going acquaintance, Mark. Whenever they're onstage together, there's a sense that hidden agendas both bitchy and sexually aggressive are at work.
"It's helpful for Irene and me to have worked together in the past," offers Pounsett. "We can look in the other's eyes and know what's going on in the person's head. If anything, the natural antagonism between the characters is undercut by our natural rapport."
There's a lot of acid-tinged subtext in the play, which looks at the lives of four people who are outwardly solid - they have the right jobs, the right accessories - but lack an emotional core that can sustain them.
"When I first read the play, I thought all four of these people were total messes," admits Poole. "But at the first rehearsal I realized that the playwright gives each of them moments when they're extremely human. He shows us the pain and frustration they live with.
"It's true that they're frequently unaware of the results of what they say and do, but awareness grows in them during the play."
It'll be a real change to see Poole tackle a character like Mary after the admirable work she's done in Factory plays like Fighting Words and The Glace Bay Miners' Museum, where she won audiences over with her likeable characters' inner strength.
Here, she's a spoiled alcoholic who's gotten everything she wants but still can't pull her life together. Like the other actors, Poole has to commit herself to the sexual energy that drives the play. She realizes that playing that energy requires vulnerability as well.
"Mary's a frustrated woman who feels completely controlled, which makes her a very tightly wound person," says the soft-spoken actor. "When she does start to drink, all the hidden stuff bubbles out."
Pounsett's Mark, on the other hand, has been given - with his recent divorce - the sexual key to the city.
"He's playing at being the little boy, able to cut loose and be 20 again," notes Pounsett, who most recently performed in No Great Mischief. "He's still trying to get the scout badges for manhood: sleeping around, drinking, drugs and hunting. But Mark finds that the 20s lifestyle isn't what it's cracked up to be."
Playwright Archambault calls the play a nightmare, but the two actors are using the biting comedy of its irony and richly drawn characters to involve the audience.
There's also, they note, the figures' 30-something appeal.
"It's unusual to see this generation onstage," muses Poole. "You're more likely to be watching a 40s midlife crisis or 20s angst.
"But there's something so right about what's plaguing these people in their 30s, caught up in a world of should-haves - this much money, this car, so many children, the right house with the right furniture.
"It's a real trap for so many people, who have to keep the facade up despite the subterranean element of panic that they use to hold it all together. Striving for a standard of living can mean you have no life."
The trick is to keep viewers from becoming distanced from the story and characters.
"The challenge of a play that combines satire, cautionary tale and black comedy is to make the audience recognize something of themselves in it," says Pounsett. "We don't want them to walk out of the theatre thinking, 'Those people are really screwed up. '"