Review: ‘On the Air’ offers laughs and a new voice in comedy at Port Dover

On The Air
On The Air

Ephraim Ellis’ seminal play about fighting for something more than financial success, writes Gary Smith

By Gary Smith | Special to the Hamilton Spectator

Sunday, June 11, 2023

They’re doing some heavy lifting these days in Port Dover. Neophyte playwright Ephraim Ellis’ comedy “On the Air” has opened at the Lighthouse Festival Theatre. While it shows great promise, it needs a little help.

That’s where director Jane Spence and a plucky cast of hard-working stage performers come in. These folks help provide sufficient heft to lift Ellis’ seminal play over the footlights.

Ellis has an ear for dialogue and sometimes lands some big-time laughs. His play about the difficulty of maintaining familial relationships and fighting for something more than financial success is built on sometimes firm but sometimes shaky ground. When he pushes for over-the-top laughs, his script wavers a little and his characters are forced to speak lines they wouldn’t likely say.

In other words, there isn’t always a core of truth developed here.

Alice, a lively Lisa Norton, is running a radio station that is tanking in the ratings. She wants to fulfil a promise to pump some new and exciting life into the place. Fortunately, along comes Matt, an exuberant Adrian Marchuk. His dad operated the station for years through good and bad times.

JD Leslie & David Rosser in On The Air
JD Leslie & David Rosser in On The Air.

Matt has baggage related to the realization that he failed family responsibilities and opted out of being there when needed. He favoured success and financial security over showing concern and love for his father. Now those mean and wrong-headed notions have come home to roost.

When Matt shows up pumped with notions about moving the station forward into the 21st century, he meets some implacable obstacles. People don’t always want to embrace change merely for the sake of change. Sometimes there is comfort in remaining still and letting the world race ahead.

We know pretty much from the get-go that the loud-talking, not-so-vulnerable Alice is going to fall for the smug and handsome Matt with the forward ideas.

We know too that at the moment of truth Matt and Alice will relinquish aspirations to reimagine the status quo for smaller steps forward and a sense of being the best of what you already are.

“On the Air” has a pretty stock band of supporting characters to keep the play chugging along. There’s mouthy little Courtney played by bubbly JD Leslie. She’s the station intern who speaks to her boss in a way no intern ever would. And there’s crazy DJ Buck played with kinetic energy by Stephen Sparks, who wants his radio playlist to include some rather wild and incongruous musical selections.

Round the fringe of the story is David Prosser’s Art, the money man, who tries to control the station’s creative instincts because he writes an annual cheque for $50,000. He’s also Matt’s disappointed uncle.

Lisa Norton & Adrian Marchuk in On The Air.

Will Matt and Alice get together for a smackeroo at “On the Air’s” fade-out? Well, what do you think. This is comedy after all. Will big-time donor Art cut another cheque to keep things going at the station? You’ll have to see “On the Air” for answers to questions like that.

The cast at Dover is plucky and they wade through some arid patches in Ellis’ text that ache for some serious laughter. When they are finally up against it, they push a tad too hard, shout a tad too loud and fight a tad too much to keep us with them by doing things that are ultimately unbelievable.

Would someone actually scream and practically fall on the floor when a curtain is opened to reveal sunshine? Would someone knock back a swig of coffee cream when startled by another’s presence?

These are small examples of things that director Jane Spence and her cast contrive to keep things lively.

The nadir sadly comes when unconventional Buck strolls out of the sound booth in white gotchies, in order to beg a cheap laugh. Ho-hum.

On the plus side, there are equally touching moments when we long for the characters here to stop shouting, calm down and give us a happy ending. Fortunately, when they do, these moments save the day.

“On the Air” isn’t director Jane Spence’s finest hour. She’s obviously working a tad too hard to make Ellis’ untried script catch fire.

Set designer Beckie Morris has provided a terrific terrain for the characters to perambulate. It’s under a bower of green leaves and sunshine. There are too, exposed wood beams and attractive solid walls festooned with radio station memorabilia.

Over in the corner there is an “On The Air” booth with sufficient paraphernalia to be believable. Alex Amini’s lived-in costumes perfectly suit the characters wearing them. And outside the front door Kevin Fraser’s warm and evocative lighting suggests the sun shining down on this handsome production.

Plays do not come fully formed at their first performance. And Ellis’ play is a world premiere that will require some serious thinking here and there before it fires on all cylinders.

Fortunately, however, there is enough here in the Dover premiere that will keep audiences entertained for a pleasant two hours. Go support a new voice in Canadian comedy.

Gary Smith has written about theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for 40 years.