Your reckless reviewer often likes going into a show cold – knowing as little as possible about the play and the players beforehand, so as to make the experience more fresh and surprising and devoid of preconceptions.
That’s how I approached Real Estate at the venerable Victoria Playhouse, knowing next to nothing about the production before I showed up – so as I looked at the venue’s signage before the show, I had the nagging sense that playwright Allana Harkin’s name felt really familiar. Often that means it’s someone I’ve reviewed before, so I kept thinking back to past shows I’d covered, but I couldn’t place her.
The play’s program later solved the mystery: Harkin was familiar from a different context altogether, namely television, where she’s a producer and on-air correspondent for comedy news show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Her Full Frontal work is good – that same week I enjoyed her beachside interviews with politically engaged youth in the USA – so it’s not surprising I had fun with Real Estate as well.
Real Estate features troubled novelist Joel Hopper (played by Darryl Hopkins), who’s dealing with writer’s block, an ailing father and a runaway wife; actually, he’s largely failing to deal with most of this, hiding out alone in his parents’ old house like a depressed hermit, dodging calls from his agent and refusing to face the fact that his wife has left him.
With his elderly father newly moved into seniors’ care, the family home is up for sale. Enter gung ho novice real estate agent Emma Bard (Raquel Duffy); what she lacks in experience she makes up for with limitless enthusiasm and little regard for personal boundaries. Emma decides to fix up both the house and Joel, tasks made more urgent by news the house will be seized for back taxes in a week if they can’t sell it in time to pay off the debt. Meanwhile, Joel’s estranged wife Estelle (Melanie Piatocha) shows up with her odd new boyfriend Ted (Ira Henderson), pressuring Joel to sign divorce papers.
The first act drags a bit in spots despite some funny lines and a game cast – Duffy in particular really pops with her animated physical comedy bits, brightly emphatic line readings and smooth comic timing – but the play gets both funnier and more emotionally engaging with the arrival of Estelle and Ted.
Estelle brings out different sides of Joel, both good and bad, helped along by some compelling Hopkins-Piatocha chemistry; and socially awkward skin care entrepreneur Ted has some of the story’s funniest moments (nicely underplayed by Henderson), as well as some interesting hidden depths. This is one of those stories, like Casablanca, where you end up liking every corner of a love triangle (more of a rectangle in this case) despite yourself.
Katherine Ryan’s handsome set has a believably lived-in feel that suits the old Hopper house, and director Charlotte Gowdy steers her solid cast well in terms of blocking, timing and tone. This all builds well on Harkin’s solid foundation, a darkly smart, bittersweet romantic comedy that takes its characters seriously.