My first reaction to Bear and Company’s production of Ottawa playwright Lawrence Aronovitch’s Finishing the Suit was, “I have to check some dates in Wikipedia.”
Wikipedia told me that the play takes place in 1972, shortly after the Duke of Windsor died. For those of you who aren’t up on your British royal history, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in December 1936 in order to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. He became the Duke of Windsor in March 1937.
The play is a memory piece about grief. A fictional New York City Jewish tailor is visited by two ghosts. One is the Duke of Windsor (known to his friends as David), whose funeral coat he is making. The tailor was in his early 20s when he first met the Duke. He moved to Paris to be the Duke’s personal tailor.
The other ghost is the tailor’s great love, Jimmy. Jimmy was a young actor from Northern Ireland who performed in several Broadway musicals and who was killed on Bloody Sunday in Derry on January 30, 1972.
There’s another ghost haunting the tailor’s memories – his Yiddish father. By the time of the play, the tailor has become a successful Broadway costume designer. We learn that the tailor returned from Paris to his first Broadway job on Camelot. Camelot opened in December 1960. That’s where the tailor met Jimmy, who was a dancer in the Camelot chorus.
This may all seem a rather fanciful setup, but (thank you, Wikipedia), it’s based on a couple of historical characters. One of them is the Duke of Windsor/David. The other is a very successful Los Angeles stage and film designer named Tony Duquette who, after World War II, lived in Paris for a year and actually did do some commissions for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Years later, Duquette replaced Camelot’s costume designer, Adrian, who had died in September 1959.
So, piecing the play’s timeline together, I think the tailor probably met the Duke in the early 1950s, lived with the Duke and Duchess in Paris until 1959, and met Jimmy in late 1959 or early 1960 in New York. Jimmy and the Duke both died in 1972. The Duke was 77. In 1972, the fictional tailor was probably in his 40s and Jimmy was in his 30s.
Why am I fixating on dates? Because the actors cast as the Duke and the tailor are far too young. As the Duke, David Whiteley is a robust middle-aged man, not a frail septuagenarian. As the tailor, Matt Pilipiak looks to be on the sunny side of 30. Even Isaac Giles seems a bit young for the part of Jimmy. I’m not sure why Joël Beddows, the director, has cast the play this way, but for me it was quite jarring.
Whiteley does an admirable job of playing an upper class twit, reminding us that historians still debate if the Duke of Windsor was as stupid as he appeared or if it was a ruse so he could do as he pleased.
Whiteley’s accent is rock-solid. The same can’t be said for Giles, whose Bogside accent wanders all over the map. At times it may imitate a lower class Northern Irish accent (I’m no expert) but at other times it sounds distinctly middle class mid-Atlantic. Perhaps it was opening night jitters. Pilipiak doesn’t assay a New Yawk accent (he sounds Canadian to my ears), and unfortunately when he imitates his Lower East Side Yiddish father, he sounds like Don Corleone.
Whiteley does an admirable job of playing an upper class twit, reminding us that historians still debate if the Duke of Windsor was as stupid as he appeared or if it was a ruse so he could do as he pleased. I’ve never bought into the “dumb as a post” theory about the Duke of Windsor, so my credulity was strained when Aronovitch has the Duke not understand the tailor’s initial question, “How do you dress?” C’mon, every one of the Duke’s tailors would have asked the same question! And that the Duke is clueless about what the gift of a salt pork cake would mean to a Jew… that was really over the top. There was evidence that the Duke was a Nazi sympathizer and racist, so it’s not believable that he was ignorant of Jewish dietary precepts.
Some folks in the opening night audience laughed at some of the lines. I’m not certain this was always Aronovitch’s intent, given the subject matter – how to cope with grief after losing loved ones.
Finishing the Suit is playing at The Gladstone Theatre (910 Gladstone Ave) until March 11. The performance starts at 7:30pm and is approximately 75 minutes long with no intermission. Tickets cost $22–38 (incl. taxes and fees) and are available online at www.thegladstone.ca.