First Time Last Time: can sex be substituted for love?
A deconstructed rom-com
by Drew Rowsome -
And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it
"Let's do it" turns into "Let's put on a show" before the not-lovebirds of First Time Last Time actually get down to doing it. The metatheatrical device of having the two protagonists also play actors playing themselves (or are they?) makes for an awkward start. And the opening is not helped by such self-deprecating quips as, "I hope you brought enough money for a drink at intermission. You're going to need it." When the just-pre-climactic moments of First Time Last Time arrive, it all comes together and makes beautiful intellectual sense, but by then the framing, narration and commentary have distanced the audience, interfered with enjoying the journey, and subverted the emotional catharsis playwright Scott Sharplin is aiming for.
Airlea and Ben meet cute and have sex on the provision that there is no commitment. Each time is the First Time with the potential to be the Last Time. The pair are, in true rom-com fashion, polar opposites with their stark differences becoming symbolic talismans. The song "Let's Do It" is important to both but, tellingly, Ben is a fan of Cole Porter-esque styling, while Airlea only references the Joan Jett and Paul Westerberg version. He is old school, she is determinedly cutting edge.
Both Wesley J Colford and Jenna Lahey are inherently appealing with great comic timing. Their ability to charm gets a solid workout. Lahey plays Airlea who is the ultimate rom-com heroine, a woman, make that a girl, whose willfully wacky self-centredness, here referred to as "weird," is meant to be quirky and cute. In real life one would run screaming to avoid an Airlea, but in this context she is supposed to fascinate and allure. Lahey, with quicksilver mood changes and a sly smile, almost makes it work.
Colford is a great foil and we believe that he is besotted with Airlea. The pair have a chemistry and an utter lack of self-consciousness that papers over the holes in the plot. Colford is also invaluable when speaking directly to the audience - his everyman persona, innocent sexiness and "aw shucks" charm make him immediately a friend, an amiable jock buddy. He even manages to skate through a bit of forced theatricality, that shouldn't be revealed, that starts out mawkishly awkward and just narrowly scrapes into magic.
The set and costumes are economically delightful and are metaphors that mean more than is initially apparent. Sharplin directs his own script and while all the pieces tie together, it is just a little too self-consciously clever. Colford is even required to deliver a sotto voce ponder as to whether he is over-explaining. Yes he is: the script and the director don't seem to trust the script.
However Sharplin also takes risks, the biggest and best sight gag of the night (yet another metaphor paying off) is immediately followed by the biggest and most emotionally wrenching moment. The incongruity is powerful, with the two opposing emotions enhancing each other startlingly. If the same focus had been brought to other clever one-liners that were tossed away in exchange for dramatics, First Time Last Time would be a brilliant production instead of an intriguing one with great potential.
First Time Last Time runs until Sun, June 21 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Ave. passemuraille.ca