By Ins Choi, directed by Meg Roe. Through Oct. 9 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane. soulpepper.ca or 416-866-8666
You know them, you’ve seen them: that insufferably oblivious couple whose unsalvageable relationship is painfully obvious to everyone except themselves. The ones who should have called it quits eons ago but continue to slug it out, only to then — finally — end it and continuously grouch about their ex, leaving you wanting to schadenfreudically exclaim, “I told you so!”
Yes, that couple. Picture them. Now you have a pretty good idea of Norah (Josette Jorge) and Charles (Raugi Yu), the chaotic spouses at the heart of “Bad Parent,” Ins Choi’s middling new comedy that offers a chaotic, if somewhat shallow, glimpse at the woes of marriage and parenthood.
There’s no doubt the play, now running at Soulpepper through Oct. 9, will elicit comparisons to “Kim’s Convenience,” Choi’s 2011 comedy that was turned into a hit TV series.
It’s smart, then, that Choi has chosen a wildly different style of comedy for his latest work. While “Kim’s Convenience” draws its humour from the realism of the everyday, through the intergenerational fault lines of an immigrant family, “Bad Parent” pulls laughter from its inherent theatricality.
Much of the 90-minute play is in the form of direct address, with Norah and Charles recounting their relationship in front of a mic. It’s endearing, at first, seeing how they finish each other’s sentences, squabbling over the details of their meet cute. (Charles claims it was at one of his music gigs; Norah insists it was at her friend’s wedding.)
But quickly, the cracks in their marriage begin to appear. It’s all laid bare in front of the audience: a laundry list of grievances and gripes that have accumulated since the birth of their baby boy, Mountain.
Frequently breaching the fourth wall, it becomes a battle, almost, of who can one-up the other and cast their other half as the “bad parent” in the relationship: Jorge’s exasperated Norah (the more authoritative of the two) or Yu’s laissez-faire, come-what-may Charles, who seems always itching to be transported back to his boy-band days instead of his life as stay-at-home dad.
Jorge and Yu are deliciously hilarious, with part of the fun watching them seamlessly transition into their secondary roles with the change of hairstyle or the addition of some accessories.
Amid the couple’s rough patch, Charles finds comfort in the meals cooked at home by Nora, the couple’s new Filipino nanny. (That the prim and chiding Nora, played with panache by Jorge, shares almost the same name as Charles’s wife adds for a great bit of humour.) Likewise, working mom Norah airs her marital rancour to her charming colleague Dale (also played by Yu), an underwritten character largely serving as a foil for Norah.
I’m not a parent, but I’m sure audiences will relate to the subtle touches embedded in director Meg Roe’s production, economically staged on Sophie Tang’s set featuring the baby boy’s bedroom, filled with shelve-loads of toys and accessories. They are little nuggets, like the way Charles mouths expletives in silence after nicking his hand, out of fear of waking the baby, or how the pair grapple with whether to soothe their wailing baby or let him cry himself to sleep.
But these moments of relatable humour aside, the comedy in “Bad Parent” feels largely cheap and tedious, weighed down by the excessive use of direct address in which each spouse rattles off their qualms about the other.
Try as you might, watching Choi’s latest work, it’s not difficult to long for the richer humour that catapulted “Kim’s Convenience” to international acclaim; the way each zinger pangs with truthfulness, gently commenting on each character or the world around them.
In “Bad Parent,” Choi doesn’t fully lean into the structure he has moulded for the play. Audience interactions feels strained and dialogue between the two main characters comes off as too obvious. (After an hour of non-stop bickering, Norah’s epiphany that the pair should probably seek marriage counselling is begging for an audience retort about how that was obvious 58 minutes ago.)
At other times, it feels Choi wants to say something deeper about the institution of marriage and the role of parenthood but falls back on superficial jokes and parental tropes — like, often, the rite of passage of assembling Ikea baby furniture.
Yet, there’s still honesty to this artistic struggle. In a way, the periodic tonal chaos in Choi’s script mirrors that of the everyday struggle that parents face daily.
It also should be noted that this Soulpepper co-production is part of a rolling world premiere with the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and Prairie Theatre Exchange. Here’s to hoping that this extended runway — quite rare for a new Canadian work — will offer Choi the opportunity to further flesh out and develop this promising piece.
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