Sweet seedy dreams in Slumberland Motel

C.M. Zuby’s set design for the world premiere of Shadow Theatre’s comedy-drama Slumberland Motel drops us down in every seedy motel room you’ve ever seen – shabby tiles on the floor, plastic lampshades, chintzy clown posters on the wall. You can practically smell the sour stench of cheap beer in the air.

Into this bereft symbol of lost hopes and dreams stumble two middle aged ’70s-era losers one lonely Christmas Eve. They’re vacuum cleaner salesmen whose future is as bleak as the small Western town they find themselves in.

“Smells sanitized,” says one.

“Like bowling shoes,” says the other.

This “road weary comedy,” a winner in the 2006 Alberta Playwright Competition, has finally found its way to a mainstream theatre production – playing until Feb. 4 at the Varscona Theatre. It’s the latest from Edmonton’s Collin Doyle, who has demonstrated he is particularly adept at writing sharp, pointed dialogue and is probably best known for his Fringe productions of the black comedy The Mighty Carlins and Let the Light of Day Break Through.

Checking into the motel at the end of the world, are Edward (Julien Arnold) and Ed (Reed McColm). They have been on the road for 20 years but this is the first time they’ve ever had to bunk together.

The first half of the show is a little Odd Couple and a lot more Planes, Trains and Automobiles as the two accommodate their eccentricities. Edward searches for pubic hair in the bathroom and checks under the bed for dead bodies. Sporting the worst comb-over since The Donald, he remembers his first three marriages – but can’t recall the fourth. Ed is married and tells us his wife is going to leave him. They think of a dream girl named Miss Molly. The two make for strange bedfellows. Ed wears sensible pyjamas. Edward sleeps in the nude. The sight of a buck naked Julien Arnold should be declared a national treasure – up there with the Rocky Mountains and Niagara Falls. At one point he wrestles hilariously to get comfortable in a huge bed that sinks precipitously in the centre. It was funny enough to pull a burst of applause from the audience.

There is a mysterious door connecting to … what? The room next door? One of the boys proposes that perhaps Paris, Saskatchewan is on the other side – but there is someone because we see a quick glimpse of a hand closing the door.

As the act ends, and the two are snoring away, the door opens and a girl enters the room.

No, she’s not the return of the woman in Room 237 from The Shining. She’s a mysterious waif fleeing from … something. She (Aimee Beaudoin) becomes the real Miss Molly. The two men think they are dreaming – Edward, dressed in shorts and a bedclothes toga, thinks the voluptuous apparition is there for his carnal desires and tries to throw Ed out, but surprisingly begins to exhibit a kind understanding of his longtime friend.

From here in Doyle and ace director John Hudson change tone to probe into darker areas of loneliness, unhappiness, dreams and delusions and the particular terrors of middle age.

Questions remain unanswered. Doubts and fears are certainly exposed and we learn little of coping mechanisms or indeed how these three needy people will proceed into an unknowable future. At one point Ed says, “I’m tired. I’m going to sleep!” Miss Molly turns off the light, spins a lovely tale of an imaginary Saskatchewan town and the night in the tacky motel takes on a shining glow of hope.

There are times when the shenanigans verge on the silly but the three performers are practiced and professional and all have considerable experience at making people laugh. Doyle knows how to write a comic scene and Hudson knows how to make it happen on stage.

A visit to the Slumberland Motel is a warm and winning experience.