James Fagan Tait, Martin Happer, Kamyar Pazandeh, and Megan Leitch in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Jitters. Photo by David Cooper.
James Fagan Tait, Martin Happer, Kamyar Pazandeh, and Megan Leitch in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Jitters. Photo by David Cooper.

Ironically, there appeared to be a few real cases of the jitters at the opening of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of David French’s Jitters, at the Stanley Theatre last night.

Written in three acts (performed in two for this production), the first sets up the story of a theatre company preparing to open a new play from an up-and-coming playwright; the second goes behind the scenes; and the third is the aftermath (and reviews) of opening night.

After two flops on Broadway, Jessica Logan returns to Toronto to perform, hoping her turn in Robert Ross’s new play will be her vehicle back to the New York stage. Joining her self-doubts on stage are an alcoholic leading man, a straight-out-of-theatre-school newbie, and a veteran actor who cannot perform without a prompter. Add in a nervous director, and an insecure playwright who is still making changes to his script, and it is not difficult to see how this could become a recipe for disaster.

But while it all sounds hilarious on paper, the “backstage nerves” don’t necessarily “hit a high note” as the Arts Club’s marketing machine might have us believe. Instead, there is surprising restraint in French’s writing, and in this production directed by David Mackay.

Yes, there are moments of hilarity with the requisite set malfunctions, and all-manner of problems with actors, doors, and egos, but these are the exception and not entirely successful.

It isn’t until the end of act one where some of the farce first kicks in, but it is fleeting and messy. Act two tries to ramp up the laughs, but the shenanigans felt a little tired, and at one point it was as if watching an old sitcom or sketch comedy show. The comedy in act three gives way to more drama than anything.

Members of the cast of the Jitters. Photo by David Cooper.
Members of the cast of the Jitters. Photo by David Cooper.

Capturing the balance in French’s play with exquisite detail though is James Fagan Tait as the veteran actor, Phil Mastorakis. Tait finds both the comical and the pathos in a portrayal that is at times simultaneously funny and sad. Martin Happer does a nice job of trying to keep everything under control as director, George Ellsworth.

Ironically, given the critic’s review of Jessica’s performance in the play-within-the-play, Megan Leitch struggles in her portrayal of the actress. As with Raugi Yu, who plays the stage manager, she felt stiff. By the time we reach the climax in the final act, her reactions register as false.

In their own case of the jitters, there was also a smattering of forgotten lines by several of members of the cast.

In another piece of irony, the playwright takes a dig at critics who infrequently mention set and costumes in their reviews. Here though, it is impossible to overlook Ted Roberts’ set design. Beautifully detailed, it is one of the more impressive designs at the Stanley Theatre in a very long time. It even garnered appreciation from the audience as it rotated from stage to dressing room.

Set in 1979, the year in which the play was written, Mara Gottler nails the time with her costumes.

Considered by some as a Canadian stage classic, David French’s Jitters is often referred to as a backstage farce, in the vein of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Predating Frayn’s comedy by three years, calling Jitters a farce though does it both a disservice to French’s play, and to audience expectations.

While there are moments of farce, French’s central focus is on the sometimes-amusing difficulties in pursuing a theatre career in Canada. Those looking for a wild backstage look at a theatre production falling apart, will need to look elsewhere.

Jitters by David French. Directed by David Mackay. An Arts Club Theatre Company production on stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until February 25. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.