Stage Left: Why it’s hard to relish Mustard

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Call me a curmudgeon (you won’t be the first), but I’ve never cared for entertainment in which adults act like children.

When Lily Tomlin was Edith Ann on Laugh-In, perched on a giant rocking chair and blowing a raspberry, I blew one back. When Will Ferrell was Buddy, the child-like elf in the film Elf, I rolled my eyes. And when Gilda Radner played a precocious little girl jumping on her bed… well, I rather enjoyed that one. But that’s only because Radner was a comic genius.

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Enter Kat Sandler, an acclaimed young Canadian playwright, actress and director. The Belfry Theatre (co-producing with the Arts Club Theatre) has just opened Sandler’s comedy Mustard, which in 2016 won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding new play. The play stars Andrew McNee as Mustard, an imaginary childhood friend living under the bed who has somehow become “real.”

Dressed in a multi-coloured outfit with a jester’s three-pronged hat, the character of Mustard is essentially that of a scatological child. “You are an a-hole, butt-fart, poo bag,” declares Mustard at one point. Indeed, his opening monologue contains both the word “poo” (if that is a word) and the f-word.

If this notion fills you with glee and delight, you may well relish Mustard. Others will find this 95-minute (no intermission) romp tiresome, overwrought, overly sentimental and terribly uneven. That’s not to blame to actors, who seem fine, or director Stephen Drover, who seems capable. This is, to put it bluntly, not a good script. How it could win a national theatre award is quite beyond me.

But keep in mind you’re reading someone who’s no fan of the adults-playing-kids caper. If you’re not a member of this club, you may feel like giving yours truly a vigorous “noogie.”

A key character in Mustard is Thai (Heidi Damayo), a rebellious teen. She’s struggling with many things, in particular, a temper that causes her to bite people’s faces and smash a goblet on her boyfriend Jay, played by Chirag Naik. Although Thai is now 16 years old, she still converses with imaginary pal Mustard. This, presumably, is because she’s yet to make the leap from child to adult, due in part to a lack of strong parenting.

Thai has a fractious relationship with her mother Sadie (Jenny Wasko-Paterson), who has her own problems. Although a year has passed, Sadie still yearns for her absent husband, who wants a divorce. She guzzles boozes and swallows pills. After a time Sadie also sees Mustard — perhaps because she has regressed to a vulnerable child-like state.

Times are tough in the Sadie/Thai household. Luckily (at least for them) they have the relentlessly irrepressible Mustard to jolly them up. Clad in an adult-sized onesy in yellow, red, turquoise and purple, he lobs poo-poo bon mots and seeks laughs because he’s a boy-man unsure how to act as an adult. For instance, while on a “date” with sad ol’ Sadie, he kisses her as though munching a watermelon, slobbering profusely and grasping her head like a basketball.

Mustard is periodically visited by Bug and Leslie, two other-worldly beings who aim to punish him for lingering too long after Thai’s childhood. The pair even torture Mustard in an incongruously gruesome fashion, which is perhaps amusing if you enjoy the sight of someone’s molar being bloodily extracted with pliers. Behaving like a couple of gangsters from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, these characters seem curiously tacked on, although Cockney-accented Bret Harris as Bug did display a comic knack on Thursday night.

As Mustard, McNee makes valiant effort to glean laughs with an obnoxiously cloying character. And at times, he succeeded. Sweating alarmingly, he was particularly good at capturing Mustard’s physical side — leaping under beds, grimacing continually, doing a spit-take after consuming sparkling wine.

The problem is, the character is just plain annoying. To make Mustard truly funny, I suspect you’d have to be a brilliant comic à la Robin Williams, Will Ferrell or Paul (Pee-wee Herman) Reubens. But such a success would be despite the writing, not because of it.

So what’s it all about, Kat Sandler? It appears the playwright aimed to create a gonzo off-kilter comedy re-examining the troubled teen/exasperated mom trope in an original and irreverent manner. Sandler intends to say something about the healing power of the imagination and the sadness of those who lose the capacity to indulge in childlike play in adulthood.

Such aims are noble enough. Yet too often, Mustard comes off as the inebriated dinner guest who insists on doing endless “amusing” impressions, while his friends wear rictus grins and surreptitiously check their watches. There’s fundamental unevenness to the play’s construction. The ending is an unsatisfying mish-mash.

Perhaps Mustard, with its pop-culture references and anarchic aspirations, would work better in a fringe or alt-theatre setting. As a main-stage theatre production, it sits uneasily and eventually wears out its welcome.

Mustard continues at the Belfry Theatre to Nov. 25.

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