THE OPTIMISTS by Morwyn Brebner, directed by Eda Holmes, with Michael Healey, Randy Hughson, Holly Lewis and Sarah Orenstein. Presented by the Tarragon at the Tarragon Mainspace (30 Bridgman). Previews from Tuesday (September 13), opens September 20 and runs to October 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $28-$34, stu/srs $18-$28 (except Saturday eve), previews $17, Sunday pwyc-$15. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Her new play might be called the Optimists, but don't you dare call Morwyn Brebner a Pollyanna.
"It's not like I have some Miss America message for the world," she deadpans on the phone from Manhattan, where she's meeting her brother's new ("and very well behaved!" she adds) baby.
"I like that Antonio Gramsci quote, which sounds clichéd, about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the spirit. I think it's too simplistic these days to be cynical. Nihilism is as unnuanced and as foolish as Pollyanaish optimism."
That said, she's currently writing a companion play called - you guessed it - The Pessimists.
Anyone who's seen Brebner's plays, especially her noirish and darkly funny Dora-winning existential musical, Little Mercy's Murder, will know the playwright's not exactly sunny and predictable.
Her works, often featuring people who've seen better days, are characterized by a quirky view of the world and a black sense of humour.
The Optimists reunites childhood friends Doug (Michael Healey) and Chick (Randy Hughson), now both 40, in Las Vegas on the eve of Chick's third wedding. Doug is an oncologist married to psychiatrist Margie (Sarah Orenstein), while Chick, a car salesman, is marrying the dealership's young receptionist, Teenie (Holly Lewis).
What does Brebner know about 40-year-old guys?
"I'm fascinated by men," she tells me. "I have brothers, not that these men are anything like them. But I've always lived with men. It's sort of like that documentary about the guy who lived with grizzly bears. Sooner or later they forget you're there and just act like bears."
She's also thoughtful about the nearing-middle-age part, although she's far from 40.
"I think that in your 20s you're dealing with potential. Everything you do seems like an opening up in the world," she says. "After 30 and into your 40s, you're dealing with a winnowing. You've made so many choices, and each choice precludes another. The stakes go up. And if the stakes don't go up there's a problem, and that's interesting, too."
The first incarnation of The Optimists came in Coupe Da Ville, a 10-minute playlet she wrote for the Tarragon's Spring Arts Fair, partly inspired by her first Toronto job, as a receptionist at a Cadillac dealership. Coincidentally, Hughson was part of that cast.
"It took me years to go back to it,"she says. "I wrote it secretly. I wasn't sure about it. It's not a departure, exactly, but it is an evolution. I wanted to try something new. I felt I had written about the relationships of characters with families. This is a play about romantic love."
She likes setting her plays in unusual places: Liquor Guns Karate, another Tarragon season opener, was set in L.A.; this one takes place in Vegas.
"I like writing about people who are outside their natural milieu,"she says. "When you travel, you're not bound by the usual rules. The things that signify who you are aren't there. Some people dissolve, while others feel unconstrained.
"And let's face it, being a Canadian in the States is always an interesting proposition. Things happen here that just wouldn't happen in, say, Winnipeg."