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After 49 plays, Foster's still going strong
 
Play review by Bill Tremblay. Photo by Pete Paterson.
 
Patricia Vanstone and Norm Foster in the Theatre Orangeville's production of On A First Name Basis. 2013
 

Throughout my career, I’ve written about numerous theatre companies in a countless number of communities. A recurring theme amongst theatre directors is to proudly boast, “it’s a Norm Foster,” when pitching story ideas.

After watching On a First Name Basis, I know why. The play, which premiered at Theatre Orangeville on April 4, lives up to the praise often attached to the name of Canada’s most produced playwright. The opening night performance concluded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

The story follows David Kilbride, a wealthy spy novelist, and his housekeeper Lucy Hopperstaad. Kilbride, a once geeky recluse, finds fame when his novels make their way to the silver screen. The play joins the characters for an evening-long, booze-fuelled, discussion at the novelist’s home.

The audience quickly learns that Kilbride is a bit of a jerk. After 28 years, the guy doesn’t even know his maid’s first name. In his defense, however, the cause of his narcissism is revealed throughout the story. He starts the conversation to alleviate his self-serving concern that after nearly three decades, he knows nothing about the woman who caters to his every need.

Foster stars as Kilbride in the production. He created the character with himself in mind for the role. While Foster is often billed as Canada’s most prolific playwright, he’s not a bad actor either. Paired with Patricia Vanstone, who stars as Hopperstaad, the two-person cast delivers a production that sways between comedy and drama.

Vanstone previously told The Banner she had repeatedly asked Foster to write “the Trish show.” He succeeded. She shines as the outspoken and spunky maid, who is quick to put her boss in his place. Together, Vanstone and Foster deliver a Seinfeld and Elaine-like timing that only enhances the show’s humour.

While the writing earns recognition for the constant laughter from its audience, the chemistry between the two actors definitely played a part. Other actors in the same role may have difficulty pulling off the right momentum. Aside from intermission, the two actors hold the stage throughout the entire performance on the same living room set.

Although the show is basically just two people talking to each other, interest doesn’t wane. The play aims to highlight differences in social class between the maid and her wealthy client. Hopperstaad isn’t subtle about letting her employer know the social and financial differences between a renowned author and the help. However, her numerous references to the division starts to get old in the second act, particularly after the audience discovers her salary.

Foster’s plays have become a tradition for Theatre Orangeville, with six of the playwright’s works premiering in town. Last year, Theatre Orangeville brought Foster’s The Melville Boys to the stage. After watching both, the playwright’s style and ability to fuse drama and comedy is obvious. Both productions offer great laughs to begin with, but eventually morph into more serious subject manner.

On a First Name Basis has deep Orangeville roots aside from premiering in town. Theatre Orangeville director David Nairn, who directs the play, has been working with Foster and Vanstone for about a year before the show was presented to its first audience. The first version of the play was performed in Bermuda about nine months ago. In January, Foster tested the story at a theatre in Florida, before making final revisions for the Orangeville performance.

On a First Name Basis is the 49th play written by Foster. After Thursday night’s performance, it’s hard not to look forward to number 50.

On a First Name Basis runs until April 21 at the Orangeville Town Hall Opera House. For tickets, call 519-942-3423 ext. 2800 or visit theatreorangeville.ca.