Review by Sean McQuaid
Fun fact: Comic book publishers of yesteryear discouraged their scripters from using the word "flick." See, the comics' typical hand-lettered allcaps font, coupled with cheap printing methods and pulp paper, posed a risk of the "L" and "I" blurring together such that "FLICK" might become a less family-friendly word.
Recalling that, the title of Norm Foster's 2009 comedy Skin Flick (newly staged at the Watermark Theatre by ACT) feels uniquely apt, featuring as it does both the execution and the utterance of FLICK's dark counterpart. Yet despite or because of the seamy subject matter, this is one of Foster's smartest and funniest plays.
Married couple Rollie & Daphne (played nicely here by director Keir Malone and Marti Hopson) lead amiably dull workaday lives until Rollie loses his job. Facing financial ruin, they team with Rollie's sketchy pal, lecherous ex-TV cameraman Alex (Noah Nazim), to produce a pornographic film for quick cash. Uninhibited, unemployed actress Jill (Jenna Marie) signs on as their star, and Alex's weirdly soft-hearted bookie Byron (Alex Arsenault) joins the project hoping to recoup some of the money Alex owes him.
Fittingly enough for a play about video, Foster enables his play's narrator (usually Rollie) to rewind, fast forward and even edit the play's action, such as blanking out some of the swearing, a fun gimmick well executed by the cast in terms of both the actors' split-second timing and the characters' repeated puzzlement over what's happening.
Foster's self-aware script gives the characters in general and the narrator in particular direct or indirect asides to the audience, and it's especially well-suited to such an intimate performance space. Malone's direction keeps the blocking suitably tight yet intermittently interactive, perhaps most memorably when a quasi-sensual Hopson-Marie clinch practically spills into a patron's lap. Whether amused, confused or even uncomfortable, the crowd is always engaged.
Foster's text walks a tricky moral tightrope here but the tone stays light throughout, partly because these appealing characters are mostly nice people (give or take an Alex) despite their dabbling in an ugly business. The play itself, for that matter, is not as naughty as one might expect. For all its salty language and murky morals, the story never turns nasty and there's no real nudity; and while this is now the second ACT play I've seen involving on-stage fondling (what an age we live in), even that moment is played for awkward comedy and pathos rather than cheap thrills.
ACT's game cast all have strong comedy chops but they also find moments of surprising sweetness in the text, especially Arsenault and Marie. Nazim is perhaps the least naturalistic actor here, but he's playing the show's cartooniest character, so it's partly a function of the role; and while his oft-intense eyes flirt with overacting early on, he eases into a subtler yet funnier groove as the show goes on.
Marie is winningly charming and funny in her biggest ACT role to date, but Arsenault narrowly edges her out to score the inaugural (albeit imaginary) Colm Meaney Award for bit player turned breakout star. Excellent in smaller parts in past ACT productions, Arsenault steals scene after scene here. He's genuine, understated, sympathetic and often hilarious, alchemically transmuting low-key line readings like Byron's enthusiasm for a breath mint into comedy gold. Performances like that help make ACT’s Skin Flick a night to remember.