Adapted by Michael Mackenzie from its original French version, What’s in a Name started off reminding me of Carnage, the dinner satire, dark comedy by Roman Polanski. Two couples (in this case they are from the same family), meet over dinner and engage in heightened bourgeois banter about ‘real issues’. While the discussion that ensues through the length of the play may seem completely unimportant, even unnecessary, it brings out a lot of truisms about people, humans in general and especially those in our close quarters who tend to remain insulated by the witty charm of ‘political correctness.’ But What’s in a Name is not just about political correctness. It is about inherent meanings of things, words, what a play on words can accomplish and most importantly, how a seemingly innocuous play on words can bring out the deepest fragility of our human condition, and allow us to really speak out our minds, with little remorse.
We are invited to the home of Peter (Pat Kiely) and Elizabeth (Erika Rosenbaum). Peter is a professor of literature and Elizabeth (fondly called Bubba by everyone) teaches at a CEGEP. Bubba is a chef extraordinaire, who goes to all lengths to prepare the most lavish Moroccan meal for her guests, while Peter hums and haws around his home, in search of keys to his alcohol cabinet. Already, the plot is set. Peter is unhelpful around the house and an excessively cerebral academic and Bubba, who is beautiful, talented and singlehandedly manages the household, including their two children.
The guests begin to stream in, beginning with their old friend Calude (played by Matthew Gagnon). He plays the flute in an orchestra and comes in with a big announcement of his impending move to Quebec City. Immediate push back from Bubba, who is betrayed that Claude didn’t feel the need to check in with her, to say the least. There is definitely more to the friendship between the two, but barring a few curious eyebrows raised by Peter, we never really get into the depth of their relationship. Before much is said about Claude and his move, Bubba’s brother Vincent (played by Andrew Shaver) shows up, the archetype, self-confessed Trumpian real estate guy, who wears his ego and his wealth on his sleeve.
Vincent is expecting his first baby boy and the evening is suddenly taken over by a discussion about the name he has chosen for him. The appalling nature of Vincent’s choice, directly reminiscent of the most horrific event in contemporary human history, takes hold of the drama and there is no looking back.
The play handsomely plays up the patriarchal stereotype. Vincent and Peter are the ‘males’ of the family who are at the center of this debate (literally). Claude chimes in sporadically, if at all, and Bubba is busy running in and out of the kitchen organizing her feast. Peter’s liberal, academic, politically correct sensibilities take a grave exception to the choice of name that Vincent vociferously defends. He argues that the appropriation of a name, with a problematic history, is its attempt to redeem itself.
Grand entry: Vincent’s wife Anna, who is carrying the baby in question. Anna (played by Amada Lisman) isn’t easily silenced by Peter’s verbose histrionics and while she is not in on Vincent’s joke, where he made up a historically abhorrent name to stir up a conversation, Anna stands her ground and will not be told by anyone, not even a man, what she should name her son.
There are aspects of the play that stand out for its attempts to question patriarchy, the assertion of the female identity and obviously, the meaning of words as identifiers of events, good and bad, leaving us with the question: what do words really mean?
While the banter regarding the baby’s name reaches its climax, Claude has his own secrets to divulge. With secrets, problematic baby names and dysfunctional relationships at display, What’s in a Name is thoroughly entertaining. The balance of all actors having a monologue each, did well for a balance of stage time and multiple laughs were served as a result.
For the actors: Andrew Shaver plays the Trumpian, unapologetic business-man brilliantly. He had the needed balance to portray extreme emotional behavior without getting hackneyed. Rosenbaum shows poise and Lisman is feisty and convincingly confrontational. Gagnon and Kiely provide solid supporting performances, though Kiely tended to go in and out of his professorial character a few times.
The sudden discovery of a seemingly incestuous relationship is where the play finally takes us. A box of surprises, which wasn’t just the baby’s name, also awaits us at the end. Personally, my activism flares up whenever even the remotest signs of prejudicial behavior is presented, even in the garb of humor. But then I calm myself or else be told that political correctness is overrated. The ‘fruit’ bit was a tad bit much, from where I sat, coz I thought the play was about words and what they mean and represent.
What’s in a Name is playing at the Segal Centre till July 30, 2017. Tickets HERE.