Edmonton 2014 Fringe Festival Review: John Cusack

The vast differences between men and women has inspired so much writing that you could fill libraries with it (and it would probably include, of course, the invention of the term homo acerbus). This year at the Fringe, a 2-woman play entitled simply John Cusack looks at the theatrical difference between men and women...specifically, the romantic comedy. Jennifer (J.C. as she likes to be called) doesn't just share her initials with Cusack but indeed a deep soulful romantic cosmic connection: as a result, she pretends to be kidnapped and trapped in a hotel room so that the cosmic winds will deposit him on her doorstep. Having fallen in love with Cusack because of this scene that almost didn't happen he imprinted on Jennifer everything a romantic movie lead has to be.

As we start off meeting Jennifer (Lana Hughes, likely no relation to John), she's 3/4 tied to a chair and "Blister in the Sun" (as in, the song that kicks off Minnie Driver's "all 80s all vinyl weekend" at the beginning of the only John Cusack romantic comedy I can handle: Grosse Point Blank) is loudly playing. I mean really loudly playing. This is upstairs in a library, isn't that weird? Madeline (Jessica Peverett), the leggy blonde hotel concierge comes in -- no, wait, sorry, she's not a full concierge yet but that is her dream -- and tells JC to turn down the music.

No, wait, hold on, I'm already having to ask silly questions. Isn't the "concierge" in a non-exciting hotel like the Delta Edmonton South (our setting) just that guy who sits at the desk reading "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books waiting for people to ask him to call a cab or recommend a good restaurant? That's what HowStuffWorks seems to describe it as. I imagine larger and fancier hotels would have more prestigious concierges, but in the case of say a big Vegas or NYC hotel there would be a whole raft of them wouldn't there? A concierge isn't the "general manager", just an employee probably a pay grade or two above the girl that takes your name and passport and then tells you they've somehow dropped the reservation and whoops. I guess in the context of this play we're supposed to all coo that Maddie becoming a concierge is like Clark Griswold wanting to be the company president someday. Actually now that we're on the topic, I can't talk about a hot blonde Maddie in a hotel without getting all hot and bothered so I'm going to just stick with Madeline.

Now where was I. Oh yes, the music was too loud, so with her free hand JC kills it. This leads to Madeline noticing that JC is all tied up in what ends up being the worst scene of the play: delivered in stilted dialogue, false starts and half-steps, it really kills any momentum the play had just as it was getting off the ground. For all other guys who only ended up in this play because they talked a girl into seeing Die-Nasty and in return had to agree to go to this one as well, I'll give you a beacon of hope: it totally gets better after this. This scene has to make us believe that two strangers, neither of whom starts off wanting any personal connection with the other, develop a fast and tightly knit bond over this scene. The actresses need to believe it, the scriptwriter needs to believe it, the audience needs to believe it. The bond has a lot of places to start, but "can you peek up my dress and tell me if my panties are visible" seems an awkward way to do it. It also doesn't help that the chemistry between the actresses feels perpetually stilted: we're told later that Madeline has intimacy and connection issues which explains much of her behaviour in this scene. Tragically though, that same piece of information is also explaining why this scene shouldn't resolve the way it does: with Madeline holding on long enough for JC to take advantage of her obvious desire to make her guests happy whichever way is necessary. Soon JC is explaining the whole thing to Madeline and, of course, to us.

She's not crazy, she knows the difference between fiction and reality. She isn't expecting Lloyd Dobbler, Rob Gordon, Martin Blank, Hoops McCann, or Jackson Curtis (actually, scratch that, nobody's expecting that last one). She's expecting John Cusack (also: not the other JC), and he will know her name, and which hotel room in which hotel in which city she is tied up in (he won't, presumably, know that it's all staged). He'll do a Grand Romantic Gesture of some sort to show how much he loves her. He'll also have some sort of "John Cusack" way to open the door, though both girls admit they aren't sure what precisely that could be.

From here the play actually shifts to its strongest point: the women talk to the audience (the other character learns the same info we do, making the soliloquy an odd choice here) about their past relationships after JC deconstructs the romantic comedy. From here it looks a bit like the rest of the play will be a deconstructing of the romantic comedy as a genre, but it only gets some of the key touchstones discussed here: the aforementioned GRG is the main thrust, and the three objectives for the romantic lead (ie: the girl). This again is one of the more entertaining bits and its a shame that the deconstructing of a romantic comedy thread is dropped so early: with one small exception it doesn't come up again. Being the Fringe romcom version of Scream sounded like a great idea. It still is, and perhaps in the future a work will focus more on this aspect.

Madeline still goes about her daily routine, but she often finds herself knocking on JC's door to talk more about the John Cusack fantasy. When JC is in the early stages of depression as she starts to fear John Cusack isn't coming, Madeline helps her out by role-playing: the first time it works quite well, the second time JC stays in her chair and Madeline plays true enough to John Cusack that JC loses her composure briefly and almost imagines it's the same thing. Unfortunately, this just dampens JC's spirits even more. Which means its about time for another romantic movie cliche, this one not explicitly mentioned in the play. Hey, just an aside, did you ever see Simply Irresistible? Yes, the 1999 romantic comedy named after a cheesy Robert Palmer hit in the 80s. No, not Addicted to Love, that's the 1997 comedy named after a cheesy Robert Palmer hit in the 80s. That movie starred Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick, the movie I'm talking about starred Sarah Michelle Gellar and a magical dancing crab (don't ask). (I'm still, by the way, waiting for a romantic comedy called "Bad Case of Loving You" so we can have a pseudo-trilogy).

Anyways, in the movie Simply Irresistible, SMG falls in love with Sean Patrick Flanery early on in the film. That's okay, this happens. Love at first sight isn't a new plot device in fiction. However, then apparently because his Excel spreadsheet made it happen, SMG and Flanery fall out of love. Later, they fall into love because a magical dancing crab made it happen (I knew you'd ask). The point is that there's nothing really driving these emotional changes in the two characters during the movie, their emotions just sort of happen to them. The falling out of love in the middle of the movie was the weirdest one, just suddenly they were...not into each other anymore. That element being in the second act of a romantic comedy is almost always there: the guy does something horrible (all Vince Vaughn romcoms) or the girl does something horrible (all Colin Firth romcoms) or somebody horrible tricks them into thinking the other did something horrible (Spider-Man 3). It's dramatic story structure, got it. However as you might have guessed, this play takes the Simply Irresistible route and has the big breakup thing...just happen. JC suddenly is mopish and standoffy, cranking her music loud and forcing Madeline to go visit the guest she's been away from more than usual because the hotel got busy. The two of them play out a scene very similar to the play's opening, and JC tricks Madeline into getting herself handcuffed to the chair. Now both of them are trapped waiting for the rescue from John Cusack! I was almost hoping for a scene where they both cried out to him simultaneously since Madeline pronounces his last name "Cue-Zack" and JC pronounces it "Coo-Sack" and to be brutally honest I don't know which one(s) is/are correct. I'd like to theorize that John pronounces it one way and Joan pronounces it the other. Now the game's afoot! JC starts quizzing Madeline about her romantic life, finding that she's been randomly hooking up with guys in the hotel to get physical pleasure without risking the emotional losses caused by her father walking out on the family. It ties in with JC's desire to be rescued even though it's ultimately just a power fantasy to regain control after the non-rescuing (presumably?) love of her life broke her heart and moved to Florida to be with another woman. On a certain level JC doesn't want to be rescued, she wants to live in a world where she doesn't need rescuing. She wound up single and alone again, though, and turned to her favourite romantic movie hero for inspiration. Madeline on the other hand desperately needs to be rescued, to have that rescue fantasy fulfilled. But she doesn't want it, doesn't want to admit that she has it, doesn't want to feel anything. She's forced into emotions when JC cruelly takes away Madeline's only source of happiness and fakes a phone in having her quit her job. Does that work? Can any of us just do this? Can you just phone up somebody's employer and fake a resignation phone call without them asking for verification?

Regardless as the woman are trapped they find themselves needing to re-bond with each other: Madeline desperately breaks about 15 GRGs out simultaneously and finally pulls JC back from her cold detachment. Meanwhile the two of them struggle to work out what their lives need...will John Cusack appear at the end to save them? The play never tells, but it does hint that he will come. Of course, the playbill hints that he's not in the production which would be in violation of Canadian Actors' Equity Association clear rules on the subject. Draw your own conclusions, surely.

Try as they might, the two actresses are unable to bring quite enough life into the characters to keep the audience interested (if you don't believe me, ask the guy next to me who started nodding off until his girlfriend gave him a Grand Romantic Gesture in the form of a gentle poke). The script shows some strong flashes here and there but it's tempered by the moments that drag out, or lines that force the scene to progress even though its unclear why the character would suddenly decide to say them. It's also a reminder that in a short work, a character whose defining trade is being cold and unemotional is hard to get across. It works better over, say, a television series: I once watched Serenity with a girl who thought the entire time that Simon was an android.

So that's what I thought of the play. Of course, I'm not the target audience here am I? Since I just talked about one girl's interpretation of a fictional work it behooves me to do it again with another. So what did she think of the play? She thought a lot of it was pretty funny, the constant re-application of lipstick really stood out as a good piece of writing to help confirm to women that JC wasn't crazy and was thinking ahead to the big kiss. She thought Madeline was too cold and that JC was cruel for locking Madeline up when she had a cat at home that needed taking care of. That upset her quite a bit, actually, if Madeline didn't have any cats it wouldn't have been so terribly wrong to tie her up and let her experience the feeling of wanting a dream man to come rescue her. Finally, she was wondering why, if Madeline was just handcuffed to a rolling chair, why she didn't just stand up and roll it out of the hotel room and into the hallway where she could escape. That plothole seemed quite unrealistic to her. Of everything from this play I told you, that's the part she thought was unrealistic.

The difference between men and women, everybody.

Final word: If you have a penis you're probably going to be unimpressed by this play. Unless you actually are John Cusack, in which case you should pop by for the ego trip. And give the actresses a ruling on which way your name is supposed to be pronounced because frankly I don't know either.

(for more reviews of the 2014 Edmonton Fringe, click here)