“On a First Name Basis” –
not to be missed production at Port Hope’s Capitol Theater

© Reviewed by John Arkelian

Port Hope’s jewel in the crown, the Cameco Capitol Arts Centre, under its talented Artistic Director, Antonio Sarmiento, got its summer theater season off to a smashing start with the utterly delightful play “On a First Name Basis.”

There are only two characters on a single set, but they exude great strength of character, holding us completely charmed and amused

Patricia Vanstone & Norm Foster in "On a First Name Basis" (photo courtesy of the Capitol Theater)

Patricia Vanstone & Norm Foster in “On a First Name Basis” (photo courtesy of the Capitol Theater)

throughout, with witty repartee that proves that comedy can still be smart and sparkling – in a time that too often instead favors the lowest common denominator as a way to generate laughter.  The playwright himself, Norm Foster, portrays his leading man, David Kilbride, a successful academic turned novelist, who has a wry, somewhat superior outlook on the world around him.  At perhaps 60-something, he enjoys commenting on the foibles of human nature and he’s ceaselessly sure of himself.  But he meets his match in his housekeeper of 28 years, Lucy Hopperstaad, played to perfection by Patricia Vanstone.  She is punctilious and correct, but she’s not one to suffer impudence lightly.  She has the manner of an iron-willed English housekeeper (though she is not British), rather than their dumbed-down colonial cousins.  David seems to have barely noticed his domestic amanuensis:  He has even delegated to her the task of completing her own annual performance appraisal – and Lucy has had no qualms in writing glowing reviews of her own work.  After 28 years, David professes not to know his helpmeet’s first name – and on the evening on which this story is set, he vows to rectify that omission.  He wants them to talk, as if they were “chums,” in order that he can learn more about the woman who has been in close proximity but all but invisible to him for so long:  “The interest you’ve taken in me is not little,” says Lucy, “it’s imperceptible.”

It all takes place on a single, very nicely designed set – a sitting room that has air-force blue walls set off by white wainscoting and shelves and burgundy chairs.   David may have the superior airs of a bright, successful “egg-head,” as he dubs himself, but he encounters a feistily able foil in Lucy.  She may lack formal credentials, but she most decidedly does not want for an inquiring (and well-read) mind.  And, my, oh my, is she candid:  “I’m nothing if not forthright, sir,” a self-assessment that is a major understatement.  Indeed, each of the play’s two characters have hints of the antihero of Moliere’s great play, “The Misanthrope” (who proclaims about his fellow man that, “I’d have them be sincere and never part with any word that isn’t from the heart”).  Not that Davis or Lucy have anything of the misanthropic about them.  Skeptics?  Yes.  Outspoken?  Undoubtedly.  Not shy about relentlessly probing for the truth of a situation or a proposition?  Definitely.  One might almost describe them as acerbic, as there is a sharpness to their verbal barbs – but it is never harsh or intent on causing pain.  Perhaps the best analogy is a pair of well-matched sparing partners, with verbal épées always at the ready:  When David tells Lucy that she’s “uneducated and common, “ he doesn’t mean it; but she has a fitting retort, skewering his self-satisfied disdain with a verdict that he’s a “self-involved, oblivious jackass.”

“On a First Name Basis” is beautifully written and flawlessly performed:  Its verbal interplay is the stuff of dryly ironic repartee:  The quips come fast and furious, generating frequent laughter among the audience:  “Do you drink Scotch?” asks David.  “Like mother’s milk,” replies the prim and proper Lucy.  As to her dating life, she says, “I’m selective.”  David practically harrumphs in response with, “Two men in 28 years.  Mensa isn’t that selective.”  There’s a subtle love story buried in this verbal fencing match, and it conjures happy memories of such pairings as Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” William Powell and Myrna Loy in their “Thin Man” movies, and Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in any or all of their cinematic pairings.  That’s pretty illustrious company – and that’s exactly where this winning production belongs.  David and Lucy may not be soft and cuddly in the conventional sense, but we instantly feel that we know – and like – them.  The two hours literally fly by.  The writing, the performances, the staging, and the set would not be amiss on the leading stages of Toronto or New York.  And this production would feel equally well at home at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival.  Yet, here it is:  Eminently affordable and situated right on the doorstep of theater-goers in the eastern Greater Toronto Area.  This is a not to be missed production.  So, don’t miss it!  It’s running through Saturday, June 20.  Go see it – and, like us, you’ll be wanting to return for a second helping.

John Arkelian is an award-winning journalist and author.

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.

Editor’s Note: “On a First Name Basis” runs through June 20th. The musical “Shout!” runs from June 26 through July 11; a touring Soulpepper production of “The Dining Room” runs from July 15 through July 31; and the musical Singin’ in the Rain,” inspired by the famous MGM motion picture, runs from August 7 through August 29.

The Capitol Theater is located in the picturesque town of Port Hope, Ontario.  For information about upcoming events, call 1-800-434-5092; or visit