COLD MEAT PARTY by Brad Fraser, directed by Braham Murray, with James Gallander, Cherilee Garafano, Erin MacKinnon, Ross Manson, Sarah Orenstein, Amy Price-Francis and Ron White. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews begin Saturday (September 25), opens September 30 and runs to October 31, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday and October 30 at 2 pm (September 26 at 7 pm only). $25-$34, Sunday pwyc-$20, previews $12. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
Want some bitchiness with your comedy? Look no further than Brad Fraser's Cold Meat Party, the season opener show at Factory Theatre.
As in his plays like Unidentified Human Remains And The True Nature Of Love and Poor Super Man - as well as his TV work on Queer As Folk - his characters may feel affection for other people, but that doesn't stop them from tearing emotional strips off one another.
In Cold Meat Party, which premiered at Manchester, England's Royal Exchange Theatre in 2003, three college chums gather at the funeral of a fourth in a Manchester B&B.
It's a few decades after they first met, and Keith, the deceased, has become a well-known writer. His friends include Nash, a feminist filmmaker, Dean, a homophobic politician, and Marcus, a gay, washed-up rock star. They bring partners, family and surprise visitors with them to what one character describes as a Big Chill event.
"Brad can be sarcastic and nasty," admits Sarah Orenstein, who plays Nash, "but his figures are all trying to make connections to others, connections that somehow have eluded them their whole lives."
Nash is accompanied by Nancy, her daughter by Keith. Neither of them has had much to do with the writer for years, while mother and daughter are now both starting to realize that their own relationship is changing. The tart dialogue between them points up their unspoken shared need to reform their bond.
"It's a tough thing, but also intriguing for me, to play such heavy emotional character development and still have to pull off a bunch of punchlines," says Orenstein, a Dora-winning performer who spent 13 years at the Shaw Festival. Her elegance onstage is partly visual and partly the product of her ability to suggest a richly textured subtext.
"What Brad's asking his actors to do is to investigate what's too glibly called modern angst. All the characters are in the fast lane, supposed to be hip, but underneath it they're all aching hearts."
Ironically, points out the actor, while the key characters have had outward success, their lives have fallen apart.
"You don't get much back story about them, but you have a sense that the last time they were together - in their university days, when they were a tight group and felt they were the best and brightest people in the world - was also the last time they were truly happy."
This trio of 40-something figures is facing a mid-life crisis.
"They've come so potently through their 20s and 30s, having ideas of where they want to be," notes the expressive performer, speaking with her hands as well as her words. "What's missing in their lives - and this is a key theme of the play - is connection, in terms of friendship or love or whatever. They all feel a painful need and try to vent it through sex, drugs, cruelty and wild, stupid living."
Orenstein credits Fraser's rat-a-tat dialogue with giving the actors a way into the play.
"I felt the orchestral rhythms and music of the writing almost immediately," she continues. "There's a trap in doing it too quickly. But if you find it, really feel the movements, the codas and the beats, you can more easily capture the comedy and the emotion."
Surprisingly, Orenstein realizes that her Shaw Festival background was useful for Cold Meat Party.
"The dexterity of getting the dialogue out is a lot like doing an Oscar Wilde play. It's fast and witty, driven by a very high-pitched engine," she says.
"At times I feel like I'm riding an express train that doesn't allow me to lie back and relax."