By Sean Devine. Directed by Richard Wolfe. Produced by Pi Theatre and Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre. At the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Saturday, November 16. Continues until November 30
Playwright Sean Devine’s Except in the Unlikely Event of War is overflowing with intelligence and wit. Really, overflowing; for all of their abundance and appeal, its ideas could be better organized, especially in Act 1.
Devine used The Report From Iron Mountain as a jumping-off point. That book was originally published in 1967 as nonfiction; supposedly, it was a document created by a U.S. government think tank that concludes that war, not peace, is in the best interests of humanity. The book made the New York Times bestseller list and, in 1972, satirist Leonard Lewin took responsibility for one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time.
In the book, the panel meets in an underground U.S. bunker called Iron Mountain. In his play, Devine moves the bunker to the Canadian Arctic and imagines the testy interactions of the panel members. He adds a 2015 plot line, also set in the Arctic, in which the right-wing, but not insane, host of a radio talk show starts to suspect that Stephen Harper’s government is manipulating the electorate by creating the illusion of imminent threat. And there’s a third, metatheatrical layer, in which a creative team, including a playwright named Sean Devine, rehearses a show called Except in the Unlikely Event of War.
This complexity creates enjoyable formal tensions. Wrestling with them is like trying to figure out a Rubik’s Cube while being told excellent jokes. Throughout the evening, the metatheatrical content is very, very funny. Actor Robert Moloney plays both the 2015 talk-show host, Tommy Bane, and John Doe, the anonymous scientist who leaks the panel’s findings in 1965. The character Robert Moloney is a poseur from the world of TV who wants his fans to know that he is both a serious artist and political activist. He stares at his hand whenever he has to get into character.
That’s all great, but by intermission I didn’t know what the thrust of the plot was, or who or what the show was about. I understand that Devine is playing with multiple perspectives, but, narratively, the show becomes more satisfying when it finds a clearer focus. That happens in the second act, when Bane faces off against a Harper strategist played by Devine, and the thematic point about Harper’s manipulation congeals.
There’s gorgeous acting from Devine, as the meta-playwright and the sinister Conservative strategist, and from Moloney, who plays the satire with utmost sincerity.
In its current state, Except in the Unlikely Event of War takes too long too gel, but how many plays have so much intelligence to contain?