TAG Stages Office Hours
Ron Foley Macdonald

Former Frederictonion Norm Foster--Canada's most produced playwright--has seen a sudden burst of interest in his work in the biggest city in Atlantic Canada. Neptune Theatre kicked off the year with a very funny production of The Love List starring veteran thespian and humorist Bill Carr. Now Halifax's long-running community theatre group the Theatre Arts Guild is in the midst of staging Foster's vignette comedy Office Hours. In June, the Dartmouth Players will offer up the former New Brunswick morning DJ's musical, Jasper Station.

To state that Norm Foster is a contemporary theatrical phenomenon would be something of an understatement. With almost 100 productions of his plays staged in the English-speaking world--from Australia to Bermuda to Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and the US--every year, the playwright is living proof that theatre, as a popular art form, is far from dead.

Since the prolific playwright entered the drama scene through a community group in Fredericton during his long stint working a day job at a commercial radio station in the New Brunswick capital, Foster has tended to write his stage work with small-scale theatres in mind. Usually he designs his plays to make use of one simple set; the characters range from 25-60 years of age, and often have 'regular' jobs as minor civil servants, entrepreneurs and the like.

Foster's plays are sharply differentiated from the idealized world of mainstream theatre, where a mix of big-budget musicals, problem plays and subsidized Canadian work often about the marginal fringes of society seem very far away indeed from the concerns of the average entertainment-seeker. Consequently, theatre snobs often dismiss his work as insubstantial. They couldn't be more wrong. The fact that audiences actually want to see his plays--The Love List at Neptune sold out its last week through sheer word-of-mouth excitement and enthusiasm--reveals that Norm Foster might just have a better grip on the expressive possibilities of theatre than do many of the current practitioners of the trade.

The Theatre Arts Guild production of Office Hours is a case in point. Like The Love List, it shows that Norm Foster has a unique understanding of the formal aspects of writing for the theatre that connects directly and immediately with audiences.

While The Love List cooly sent up masculine expectations of what makes 'a perfect woman', Office Hours explores the everyday concerns of people working in small-time offices. These are not the big downtown conglomerations filled with the corporate drones and ambitious executives as portrayed on television and Hollywood motion pictures; the characters in Office Hours are doctors, managers, and small-time agents who can barely afford secretaries.

The action takes place over six loosely connected vignettes that combine in the last story to tie some of the narrative threads together. Each playlet has two or three characters, making for a large cast overall, perfect for community theatre where the talent pool is often both wide and deep.

Director Bill Van Gorder clearly has had great fun putting Office Hours together. To spice up the scene changes, he's engaged what appears to be a real cleaning company to spruce up the set, complete with cleaning cart, plush cushions and deluxe dusters, all executed as a kind of surreal off-hours ballet.

The six scenes unfold flush with Foster's unique and often pointed humour. The opening scene, for example, features a haughty broadcast manager downgrading a veteran reporter; meanwhile a knife-wielding nut bursts into the story to push the narrative into a completely different direction.

Many of the details Foster sets in the very first scene get repeated throughout the play. A gag about a expensive appointment book, for example, appears in every single vignette until it becomes something of a centerpiece in the climactic scene involving a psychiatrist's office and a patient threatening to jump from the office window's ledge.

Some of the characters in that scene come back from the second-act opener entitled The Visit. In that vignette a young lawyer gets an unexpected visit from his hectoring parents. The exchange results in a hilarious coming-out exchange that ultimately sets up the incidents that make up the fifth and sixth vignettes.

The Theatre Arts Guild's usual impressive standard of acting, set design, costuming and stagecraft are all on full display in the production of Office Hours. Like all good comedies, it's briskly paced and tightly delivered; the sheer amount of laughter coming from the audience was prodigious.

The best thing about a comedy like Office Hours is that it will most likely tighten up even more as the run of the production continues. The play is scheduled to go on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights until May 12th at the Pond Playhouse in Jollimore in the Armdale region of Halifax.

© Ron Foley Macdonald 2007

Ron Foley Macdonald is a freelance writer and film programmer who has worked The National Film Board, The CBC, and Atlantic Film Festival. He is currently writing theatre reviews for The Daily News.