Margaret Thatcher. Genocide. Venereal disease. Personal betrayal.
These are not the standard fare of romantic comedy. But in the deft hands of Whitehorse playwright Peter Jickling, they become wickedly funny.
With Syphilis: A Love Story, Jickling has hit the exact tone for the rom-com genre.
As a love story, it comes perilously close to being formulaic, in the mould of such Hollywood products as When Harry Met Sally:
Boy (Vaughn) meets Girl (Lynn) after a three-year absence. Girl badly wants Boy. Boy badly wants Girl, but is too much of a doofus to realize it. Best Friend (Howard) intervenes. Love conquers.
What saves it from being romantic schlock is the sure-footed way Jickling has drawn his characters and the sheer lustre of the dialogue he has given them.
It’s not a huge stretch to say this play evokes Neil Simon at his best, but with the intelligence quotient ratcheted up a notch.
Anyone who can’t take joy from a line such as, “You lied to yourself to proof to yourself you were lying to yourself,” or a throw-away such as “No one likes a lazy thinker; take a second to figure it out,” is in serious need of a funnybone transplant.
Ramshackle Theatre’s production of Syphilis: A Love Story moves like an express train. You know you’re in good hands when a 45-minute first act feels like 25 minutes.
Under Brian Fidler’s expert direction, the four-member cast delivers the goods in fine style. The actors have the sense and discipline not to dwell on even the funniest lines. They take absurdity in stride because their characters see it all as logical.
The play revolves around Vaughn Fischer (George Maratos), a struggling writer whose first novel went nowhere. But his life takes a sudden turn with a telephone message from one of the few people who has read it – a splendidly strange woman named Betty Beemer.
Betty, played with delightful effect by Mary Sloan, is a ’60s holdout who collects rotary telephones and speaks a patois of common sense, non-sequiturs, outdated aphorisms and utter nonsense.
Betty wants Vaughn to write a pamphlet about syphilis. Vaughn wants redemption as an artist.
He becomes obsessed with the subject, rhapsodizing about syphilis as “one of the great diseases of human history” and plunging into this simple assignment as if it were high art.
“I don’t think anyone has ever considered the STD pamphlet as a separate genre,” Betty notes.
To Vaughn, the task takes on Sistine Chapel dimensions, with him as Michelangelo.
“My favourite Ninja turtle,” replies a totally straight-faced Betty.
In his feverish quest to become what Betty terms “the Michelangelo of the pamphlet rack,” Vaughn cloisters himself in his dingy apartment, manically obsessed with syphilis.
Best friend Howard Gunn (Anthony Trombetta), a far more pragmatic writer than Vaughn, who admits to having an “idiosyncratic sense of morality”, worries about the toll this simple write-for-hire assignment is taking on Vaughn’s health.
As Howard sees it, the solution is for Vaughn to take up with an old college flame, Lynn Flynn (Justine Davidson), whose torch is still clearly lit.
Lynn propels herself onto Vaughn like a scud missile, but Vaughn only has eyes for his STD.
When Howard persuades her that the only way to capture Vaughn’s attention is by deception, she agrees to feign a special insight into syphilis.
At first, it seems to work. Vaughn’s interest is aroused, but not by the woman so much as by the supposed depth of her venereal knowledge.
Poor Lynn is left to lament that she’s “a big fat zero in the binary code of life.”
As Lynn pulls out all the stops to get her man, madness ensues – along with some serious hilarity.
When it all comes out that Lynn has been less than honest, and that Howard was behind the scheme, Vaughn naturally feels betrayed. More so when he learns that his pal has secretly been turning the whole melée into a new novel.
Adrift, Vaughn takes his woes to Betty, whose response is a sage observation about betrayal as “one of the all-time classic themes”, surpassed by only other: love.
In the end it is Betty, not Howard, who effects the Girl-gets-Boy happy ending that romantic comedy demands. She forces Vaughn to see Lynn’s emotional investment with the blunt assertion that “this woman’s commitment is the stuff of legend”.
And it is Betty’s brief epilogue that cements the warm glow in the collective audience heart, even as it leaves open the question playwright Jickling poses in the script’s description of the characters: “Who the hell is Betty Beemer?”
For anyone in need of an antidote to the spring blues, Syphilis: A Love Story is the perfect prescription.
It’s brilliantly written, directed to a fine comic pace, acted with admirable conviction and dexterity, and well-served by Stéphanie Lambert’s simple but versatile set.
Above all, it is intelligently funny. Very, very funny.
The run continues at the Guild Hall until Saturday, May 28. Curtain is at 8 pm.