by Ivy Wigmore
Some months back, when Laurel Smyth was discussing plans for The Fixer-Upper, she said that she’d balked at playing Phyllis the Sexpot in addition to her major role of Aunt Tillie. Smyth, who says she has “just five years to go ‘til the pensions kick in,” felt that the character wasn’t a good match for her at this stage in her career. However, she soon thought of reconsidering. Without missing a beat, playwright Lorne Elliott had replied, “Oh fine then—I’ll play Phyllis myself.”
And so it was in a state of some anticipation that I set out to see The Fixer-Upper on a hot summer’s evening recently. I don’t usually like to quote myself, but I think in this case it’s relevant. Here’s the vision of Elliot I conjured for readers some years back: “Lorne Elliot is a funny guy. I mean, that hair! The lanky, wind-blown, storm-tossed look of the man, and the perennially baffled expression!”
Furthermore, as you may know, Elliott is approximately seven feet tall and not what anyone might call “androgynous,” let alone “pretty.” As you may imagine, Elliot’s physicality and posture lent a sort of deranged poignancy to the role of the Phyllis. Sheer genius. As was much of the rest of the performance.
Here’s the plot in the proverbial nutshell: Bruno MacIntyre has a shack he wants to rent out for the summer. He enlists the “help” of his Aunt Tillie (who has plans of her own) and comedy ensues.
Smyth’s son Will McFadden played the hapless nephew. To start things off, Bruno took us through a translation of common real estate terminology, from “starter home” (Read: kindling) to “fixer-upper” (Read: burner-downer). And then he just settled into the full-time occupation of falling into the intricate machinations of his aged relative.
Laurel Smyth is Aunt Tillie. And why not—it looked like a lot of fun. Aunt T carried meddling, misrepresentation and manipulation to new levels—she was positively Machiavellian. She was also snide, sarcastic and sharp as a tack, pushing poor Bruno through hoops and working her touchpad like an evil virtuoso. (There was also a lovely themed musical interlude in which Smyth accompanied Elliot’s guitar. Quite frankly, I have never heard anyone rock the touchtone phone any better.)
Lorne Elliott is always a pleasure to watch (and now I’m talking about his performances, not just his physical persona). There’s something very genial about his style, even as he displays the foibles of his characters at their most ridiculous. Whether it’s pompous Simon Beamish—the Torontonian writer who last year trashed PEI and is back for more ink for his poison pen—or the aforementioned ungainly cougar Phyllis (not coincidentally, Beamish’s estranged wife), Elliott plays up their flaws in a surprisingly sympathetic , if hilarious, manner. (And yes, you understood me correctly – Elliott portrays both man and wife.)
And if that sounds like an interesting ping-pong match to watch, you really have to see Will McFadden reproducing an argument between the two. McFadden is a superb physical comedian and seeing him back-and-forthing between accusatory Simon and affronted Phyllis had us laughing through our whiplash. Things got even more interesting as the heat of argument yielded to the smoldering passion between the two… Yes, I think you’ll just have to see it.
To some extent, the whole play is about expectations and perspective and the comedy and pathos that results when these clash with reality. Speaking of which, here are a few facts about PEI that Bruno shared: All the men look like Greek gods. The night-life rivals that of Las Vegas. There are no mosquitoes. There are, similarly, no jellyfish. Believe that? Great! I’ve got a fixer-upper I’d like to show you…