REVIEW: Comedy on slow boil in understated new Lemoine, The Adulteress

With all the elements Stewart Lemoine has put into his latest play The Adulteress – an outspoken woman who lost her eye in an office accident, an awkward meeting between two prospective tenants who both want the same room, a landlord caught in the middle – you’d think we’d have another rip-snorter on our hands.

But this is not the case as The Adulteress turns out to be one of the quietest plays Lemoine has ever written. It plays through May 12 at the Varscona Theatre.

Creating gripping conflicts has never been one of Lemoine’s strong suits. What he does have in his court in the innate gift of writing sparkling, chuckle-inducing dialogue – and The Adulteress comes through. The playwright still has the ability to turn any inane encounter on stage into a Marx Brothers’ movie. The patter of the characters had the audience laughing throughout the opening night – but what makes The Adulteress stand out from Lemoine’s shows of the last 30 years is how understated it all is.

The action opens as Ethel (Briana Buckmaster) and Antonia (Shannon Blanchet) are waiting on the front stoop of a house with a room for rent in the town of Fresh Hope Springs. The year: 1960. Their meeting is awkward as they wait for Roy, the landlord (Eric Wigston), to come by, open up the house show them around, then pick which woman to whom he will rent the room. While Antonia catches his eye, it is Ethel who gets the room. And what a winner this woman turns out to be: Turns out she wears an eye patch as the result of an office accident where her request for a single pen resulted in a shower of them from all her co-workers. And given Ethel’s history in the workplace, you might question the accidental of the “accident”. Her penchants for putting out two glasses and playing two-handed card games by herself are symbols of her profound loneliness. One might feel sorry for her if it were not for her white-knuckled grip on her own downfall – being the eponymous Adulteress. Then again, she never asked for any pity in the first place. It all comes to a head when Ethel insists on hosting a dinner party for Roy and Antonia to smooth out the waves her boat-rocking has created. It is at the party where she gets drunk and insists on prying into other’s soft spots.

The cast is top drawer and in fine form. Shannon Blanchet is so immersed in the character of Antonia to the point that she is almost unrecognizable. The one word to describe Jeff Haslam’s set is “respectful”: For the most part, the decor is faithful to the ‘60s, and it has some innovation to reflect the play’s many settings outside the rooming house. As good as the set is, it is nothing to rave about, and that might have been the intent all along. Even costume designer Leona Brausen’s usual flamboyancy seems to be muted.

Still, one can have fun watching the study in contrasts that is Ethel and Antonia, and how Roy provides a fulcrum of juxtaposition for them both. There is a mature dignity to this play, and maybe Lemoine is at the point where he is reflective and wistful with his work. Knowing this might help you avoid being overwhelmed by The Adulteress’s underwhelming aspects.