by Kat Sandler
Directed by Ashlie Corcoran
At Tarragon Extra Space. January 5-28, 2018
Kat Sandler’s fringe comedy hit Mustard is about love in various iterations. The title character is a fully-grown man in mustard-coloured overalls and red jester’s cap. However, he is an imaginary character—friend and counsel to Thai, 16-year old troubled daughter of wine-and-pill addict Sadie, a woman who can’t bring herself to accepting her impending divorce from a man who abandoned her and the daughter for another woman. Mustard likes hiding under Thai’s bed (in Michael Gianfrancesco’s tight, realistic set), from which he frequently emerges to advise or argue with her about her nervously awkward 20-year old boyfriend Jay and her much put-upon single mom. If Sandler had stuck fast to this quartet, and to the estranged father (who, in voice and face, looks very much like Mustard’s double, and no wonder as it is the same actor playing both roles), the comedy would have paid better dividends with its contemporary edginess, rapid-fire dialogue, wordplay, and psychological gamesmanship. Although Rebecca Liddiard is correct in her emotional acting, her vocal acting pitch is more suited to television than the stage. As her befuddled young suitor, Travis Seeto shows a fine sense of comedy, while Sarah Dodd as the neurotic mother gives an absolutely tone-perfect performance, part anxiety-neurosis, part alcoholic bitterness, part maternal befuddlement but deep love. The scene where she reluctantly consents to a date with a shy but lusty Mustard is a comic delight. As the title character, Anand Rajaram is wrily comic and sometimes touching, but he pushes too hard from the outset, though he manages a nice transformation as Thai’s father.
But playwright Sandler complicates and muddies things. There are times when the underlying psychological basis of the tale gets wrenchingly warped if not downright violated when the mother sees the daughter’s imaginary friend. Is this to imply that two very different characters can have the identical imaginary boon? How would this be possible when the daughter has never described Mustard to the mother? Besides this problem, Sandler concocts another with a strong nod to over-the-top violence of a Quentin Tarantino or Darren Aronofsky film, though minus their stylistic flair and assurance. Mustard has supposedly outstayed his usefulness and is pursued by two thugs (Bug and Leslie) who torture him in an attempt to force him into “Boon Swallow,” evidently some sort of purgatory or worse. This trope is violent in itself, causing the play to shift tone and mood abruptly, and this causes a lack of focus in addition to a muddying of the comedy. And the play is just a little too long to sit through, but it shows strong signs of a playwright with an active imagination and some fine skills in the making.