What Happened Was…

The Globe and Mail – review by Kamal Al-Solaylee

First dates, like inaugural productions, can be awkward affairs. In Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was . . . — a story of a first date that also launches the Toronto career of Coraggio Company.

Noonan writes honestly and freely, with an eye and ear for the cringeworthy, and it’s something that this production seems to have picked up above all else. The setup is simple: Jackie (Marie Dame), an executive assistant at a Manhattan law firm, invites paralegal Michael (Chris McCawley) for dinner at her apartment one Friday, alcohol-filled night. She’s running late; he shows up early. He clutches his bag longer than normal after he first arrives, and then holds on to his wine glass for dear life.

She is preoccupied with reheating a seafood dish she has prepared over the weekend. All and all, there’s little evidence of the rapport that they presumably enjoy in the office and plenty of nervous tension. As the evening progresses, their connection to each other is firmly established — both are outsiders and loners who aren’t where they want to be in life yet — but severely tested.

Dame (who’s also the executive producer) is a young actor with promise. A character as emotionally unpredictable as Jackie who, after all, writes blood-filled children’s stories that make Anne Rice’s fiction read like nursery rhymes, and is a fan of both Deep Purple and Air Supply. Dame displays the right neurotic sensibility.

The bursts of humour in the writing, some perceptive analysis of class in America and hints of potential in Dame lend this date some voyeuristic if awkward pleasure.

Review by Dave Morris

First dates are bad enough when you’re on them. Desperately wanting to flee from the awkward pauses, dropped cutlery and inevitable breaches of etiquette, the first date suitor grimaces inwardly even though a combination of desperation, lust and a kind of perverse optimism pins them to the chair. Why anyone would want to dramatize this excruciating spectacle is beyond comprehension, though the first third of What Happened Was gives you plenty of time to gnaw on the question. As writer Tom Noonan’s indie film-turned-play unfolds, so does the answer — because it makes for a riveting 90 minutes of honest, powerful theatre.

In spite of the fact that they work together, Jackie (Marie Dame), a reformed party girl turned executive assistant, and Michael (Chris McCawley), a secretive paralegal with a grudge against “the system,” prove incapable of getting through even the most basic conversations without verbally stumbling all over each other. The tension is palpable, which makes their brief forays into comic relief (including an inspired reading of a children’s story with more sex and violence than a Tarantino marathon) explode across the stage. Dame and McCawley communicate different moods and shifts in tone with exceptional agility, making it easy to sympathize with their characters even as they say and do profoundly stupid and self-destructive things. Dame’s Jackie struggles to repress a knot of desperation continually rising to the forefront of her mind, like an addict trying to fight off a craving only to find that there’s another one on the way.

Ironically, great as it is, What Happened Was would make for an awful play to see on an actual first date. Both Noonan’s observations and the actors’ portrayals of them are so revealing that to see it in this context would be like studying a magic trick right before seeing someone saw a woman in half. Save it for the second date, when you and your partner can marvel at its piercing accuracy.

CLASSICAL 96.3 FM – review by Paula Citron

New York playwright Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was…” has an interesting premise. Two employees in a law office – one an executive assistant, one a paralegal – take their flourishing friendship out of the work place to a Friday night dinner at the woman’s apartment. In other words, can the same casual simpatico between the two transfer over to a first date?

Jackie and Michael are damaged people, as we find out during the course of the evening, which in turn compromises their friendship. Each has different expectations. It’s a raw, brave play, and the characters of this marginalized duo are deftly drawn, even haunting.

Marie Dame and Chris McCawley give very, very sensitive performances as Jackie and Michael, and one can’t helped being touched by their vulnerabilities. Kudos to director Christopher Warre Smets for keeping things real. This is a play of pathos, not of melodrama. Kylagh Young’s New York loft set is terrific.