The Best Brothers Examines Who and How We Love

Jim Salners and Steve Bullitt in The Best Brothers.
Jim Salners and Steve Bullitt in The Best Brothers. Photo by Addison deWitt

The setup:

Daniel MacIvor, y’all! Daniel freakin’ MacIvor!!! Wait, what? You’ve never heard of him? Ever? You’ve never heard of this award-winning actor/playwright/director whose prolific work spans decades? An artist with unbridled personal storytelling prowess whose work digs deep into the emotions of the unforgettable characters he creates? Characters that are often just outgrowths of his own consciousness mining?

Oh, right. I forgot. Dorothy, I’m not north of the U.S. border anymore. I’m in Houston, where knowledge of one of Canada’s most theatrically heralded artists just isn’t on anyone’s front burner. Sure, I get that.

But thanks to the folks at Theatre LaB, ignorance will be no more. They’re reached up into Canuck-land and brought us one of MacIvor’s more recent-ish works, The Best Brothers, a lightly bittersweet-dipped two-hander comedy about siblings in the aftermath of their mother’s death.

The execution:

An Orange Crush is bought by a boy and given to his mother with love. The mother takes the pop and immediately hands it off to her younger son. A wishbone is snapped, the eldest brother gets the winning half. Everyone around the table says congratulations, except the boy’s mother, who instructs him to give the lucky half to his baby brother, who, she says, needs it more. The aforementioned two brothers, now adults, relive these resentful and jealous moments, still so simmering that it results in their coming to blows — while delivering their mother’s eulogy in front of a packed church congregation.

It’s a humorous but familiar sitcom-y scene, smack dab in the middle of the 90-minute one-act show. A scene that’s been building since the middle-aged brothers, Hamilton (Jim Salners) and Kyle (Steve Bullitt), come together to plan their mother’s funeral following her decidedly oddball demise involving an accidentally toppling Filipino drag queen at a Gay Days parade.

Hamilton Best is successful, responsible, organized, a decision maker. But he’s also vulnerable, visibly distraught at losing his mother and suffering in silence while his wife slowly exits his life. Kyle Best is a bit of a flake. A condo salesman who gives out business cards at his mother’s visitation (“everyone is a potential customer”), and a man who sees no issue with having a transient male sex worker as his romantic partner. Perhaps his blasé attitude about his mother’s death is just another one of his selfish ticks. Needless to say the two don’t see eye to eye on any of the arrangements surrounding their mother’s send-off. Including what to do about her beloved pet greyhound, Enzo.

The brothers’ mildly amusing narrative of planning, executing and aftermathing the funeral shapes the play like the rib cage of a skinny cow. Their story holds the structure up, it even bends in certain unexpected ways, but there’s really not a lot of tasty meat attached to those bones. Thankfully for us, MacIvor brings his trademark character dive-ins to save the day. Alone onstage, one brother, then the next, dons a scarf and white gloves, transforming into their mother, Bunny Best, a sweetly eccentric woman whose life has been full of adventure. We hear her tales of peyote sojourns, endless younger lovers, including “the inevitable German,” a wonderfully comical deep ode to the Arabesque screen saver and, most poignantly, adoration for her dog.

But these monologues aren’t simply enthralling yarns to tell. Instead, MacIvor uses them to get at the very notion of love and how we give it. “I loved Hamilton best and Kyle hardest,” Bunny says, disabusing us of any real parental unfairness on her part. But what to do when your children don’t need or want your love the same way? What to do when your marriage falls apart, your lovers come and go, your friends drift for one reason or another? What to do with your love then? A dog is easy to love, sure. But is it the dog you love, or is it your most hidden and pure self that your dog represents? And what of Bunny’s boys? How do they, and we, children all of us, ever come to terms with the love our parents gave us? Can we accept it and henceforth love ourselves as easily as they did?

These sumptuously written, insightful and cleverly funny examinations are classic MacIvor and we sit rapt as Bunny invites us as honored guests into her most inner thoughts. Or at least we’re rapt for half of the time, for while the material is there, both of the performances are not.

It doesn’t take long to realize that things are off-kilter cast-wise. While Salners’s Hamilton is fluid, Bullitt’s Kyle is stagnant, always about a beat behind the action. Hamilton ebbs and flows with the dialogue in an easy banter; Kyle seems to be delivering script lines. We certainly can appreciate director Stuart Purdy’s decision not to make Kyle overly goofy or effeminate, but by reining this character in, he seems to have handed a wooden weight to Bullitt as well.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when the actors play their mother. Salner’s Bunny is effusively adorable in her out-there-ness. She is warmly weird yet not without common sense. However, in Bullitt’s hands, Bunny seems uptight and imperious because of his stiffness.

Equally unharmonious are the projections used just a mere three times throughout the play like unnecessary bookends with blank novels in between. The play begins with a projected split-screen backdrop of the brothers’ places of work. We then don’t see an image again until Bunny’s funeral, when a generic stained-glass circle window flanks the back wall. A dog park projection sees us out of the show. With an otherwise blankly minimal set of two chairs and an occasional table brought in, these spit-at-the-wall images distract more than enhance the production by their randomness.

The verdict:

Even with these issues, there’s enough packed into The Best Brothers to make this production worthwhile. Forget the faults – the less than intriguing anchor story, the uneven performances and some projections for projections’ sake; concentrate on the stories MacIvor tells us, and I dare you not to be moved. To not want to go home and hug a parent, a dog, a sibling. Or if none are around, to think about your own path of love before death.

Then realize that this show is actually MacIvor light. The Best Brothers is far more popular and conventional than most of his works and it’s by no means my favorite. I like my MacIvor funny, sure, but with an edgier tinge and more darkly challenging story. And there are plenty of those to be found in his body of work.

But if this show is the gateway play we need to convince producers that Houstonians are up for more of MacIvor’s work, I’m totally down with that. If nothing else, I promise this Canadian will be first in line to come out and about for the next and all following MacIvor shows. Count on it, eh?

The Best Brothers continues through March 5 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For tickets, call 713-521-4533 or visit $38

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman