Left to right: Melodie Hull and Peter Schalk in “Next

Left to right: Melodie Hull and Peter Schalk in “Next

Age of transformations

Cranbrook Community Theatre presents two plays — “The Exquisite Hour” and “Next” — one the dark mirror of the other

Both sides of the 1960s are on display at the Studio Stage Door, as Cranbrook Community Theatre presents two one-act comedies.

“The Exquisite Hour,” written by Stewart Lamoine and directed here by Elizabeth Ross, and “Next,” written by Terrance McNally and directed by Bob McCue, open tonight, Friday, Jan. 24, starting at 8 p.m.

“The Exquisite Hour” is set in 1962 — a bright age, quirky, mind-expanding, colourful, with a sense that the world is changing.

Zachary Teale (Patrick Baranowski) — department store manager, bachelor, gentle, unfailingly polite — has an hour to spare and has been charmed into giving it over to Helen Darimont (Jennifer Inglis), an encyclopedia saleswoman who has entered Teale’s backyard while he is relaxing, drinking lemonade.

This is not the era of the hard sell. Mrs. Darimont — clad in a summery garden party ensemble and armed with a Life Magazine smile, conversationally circles Teale’s cheery neighbourliness and sensitivity, looking for a way in — for a way in for the sale!

To convince Teale of the value of her compendium, Darimond begins teaching him how to use the encyclopedia as a conversation starter, and takes him on a series of role-playing exercises based on random entries from Volume H (the only volume she has brought along). Thus the pair transport themselves, and us the audience, with tales of the miraculous conversion of St. Hubert, the Hohenstaufen dynasty of Swabia, Hannibal of Carthage, and other enchantments beginning with H.

“The Exquisite Hour” is about the triumph of general knowledge; of trivia as a pathway to a rich, fullfilling life. It unfolds like a Billy Wilder comedy — but maybe that’s just the bourbon in the lemonade.

If the opening play is infused with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the second play, “Next,” takes us to the end of the decade — its comedy is accordingly dark, angry, unsettled, self-questioning.

Our hero — the  hapless, eccentric, academic Marion Cheever  (Peter Schalk) — enters the army induction centre with a urine sample and a magnificent belly. He is as unwarlike a personality as you could ever meet. Yet here he is, getting sucked into the war machine. He has reported for his draft physical, to his disbelief and great displeasure, and is to be put through the mill by the harsh examining officer Sergeant Thech (Melodie Hull).

The series of physical and psychological tests are part of the ritual humiliation the potential recruit Cheever  is subjected to. But Cheever knows something, it turns out, about mental cruelty, and and he is going to use every tactic at his disposal to get that 4-F classification — unfit for service. Humiliation is not high on the list of his concerns. But Sgt. Thech is made of tougher stuff than Cheever’s ex-wives. Her job is to deliver the fuel for the war machine, and she’s good at her job. Let the battle be joined.

But what will the cost  be for our hero? After being so thoroughly broken down, Cheever must build himself up again, if he will be able to walk out the door back into his life.

The four actors in these two plays have great space and material to display their acting, comedic and physical talents, and use the space and their abilities to great effect. Baranowksi and Inglis expand the theatre and banish our humdrum routines. Hull and Schalk draw us into their claustrophobic confrontation. We make special note of Schalk’s remarkable angry soliloquy at the climax of “Next,” performed to the background of a typewriter.

Produced by Kristy Quinn, “The Exquisite Hour” and “Next” will run together for eight nights, January 24 and 25, January 30, 31 and February 1, February 6, 7 and 8 at the Stage Door in Cranbrook.  Tickets are $13 for CCT members, $15 for non-members and are available at Lotus Books or at the door.