Saturday, October 15, 2011

(No.175) Soulpepper's "The Odd Couple"

A well known and often performed American comedy is playing in Toronto through Nov. 22: the Soulpepper Theatre Company's production of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple". It is presented at one of Soulpepper's two theatres at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery Historic District.

The Soulpepper Theatre Company was founded in Toronto in 1998 by 12 artists. It has presented a variety of plays, some mainstream, many not. Albert Schultz, one of the founding actors, has been its artistic director since its beginning. It moved into its permanent quarters at the Young Centre in 2005 and is today a mainstay of the theatre in Toronto.

Soulpepper plays have provided Pat and me with a number of enjoyable evenings in the theatre. One that comes immediately to mind is their presentation of Joe Orton's black comedy "Loot" (see column No. 42 on www.RickardsRead.com, posted July 30,2009).

A challenge of sorts in doing "The Odd Couple" is to find something fresh or new in this 1965 hit Broadway play, one that went on to become a popular 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and a still more popular television series (1970-75) with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Any theatre audience will include many who are familiar with the characters and the premise of the plot. They tend to bring to it both preconceptions and expectations, sometimes based on the movie and/or the series rather than Simon's play.

The original Broadway production of The Odd Couple starred Walter Matthau and Art Carney. The play has been revived many times since, including a production starring Matthau and Tony Randall in a 3 month run at the Theatre Royal in London.

The 'odd couple' in this Soulpepper production are the company's artistic director Albert Schultz as the slob Oscar Madison who takes into his apartment (from which his wife and family have recently departed) the obsessively neat Felix Ungar (who has been ejected from his home by his wife). Felix, a fiercely active cook and housekeeper, is played by Diego Matamoros. They both wear their roles like tailor-made suits; they fit beautifully.

The Odd Couple's director is Stuart Hughes, an actor and (like Schultz, Matamoros and several other members of the cast) a founding member of Soulpepper. He has long associations with most of the eight person cast, as do they with each other -- and it shows. The familiarity supports the play's relationships on stage.

In spite of the challenge of getting laughs from audience members who may already know the laugh lines, the Soulpepper cast carry it off well. The audience clearly enjoyed the play, as did we.

by Alastair Rickard

for ticket information: www.soulpepper.ca or box office 416-866-8666

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

(No.174) Noel Coward's "Private Lives"

Years ago Pat and I attended a production of a Noel Coward play in London's West End. Coward was and still is one of our favourite playwrights and this production of a Coward play remains memorable for me. The reason is that this particular production came from a director and a cast who were seemingly dedicated to giving it an aggressively gay slant.

Indeed, so much was this the case that as I watched it I could almost hear Coward spinning in his grave. So out of tune was it with what the audience expected of a Coward play that half of its members walked out at the first intermission, not to return. I confess that was also my inclination but Pat would not leave so I stayed.

Noel Coward's plays and his dialogue have a particular style and favour a distinctive delivery of that dialogue. Which brings me to a different Coward play, Private Lives, the comedy of manners Coward wrote and in which he performed with his friend Gertrude Lawrence in London in 1930.

This is the play mounted in London in 2010 by the Theatre Royal Bath Company. It starred Kim Cattrall in the Lawrence role and is now at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto until Oct 30. The production then moves to New York for a Nov.-Feb run. This North American production also stars Canadian Paul Gross in the Coward role opposite Cattrall.

The play's plot can be easily summarized: former spouses (Cattrall and Gross) come to a hotel in Deauville France, each accompanied by her/his new spouse; five years after their divorce they meet by accident and run off together to her Paris apartment leaving their new spouses behind; in Paris the ex-spouses fight as of old; the new spouses catch up with them in Paris and end up fighting with each other; ex-spouses reconcile and sneak away.

This production's English director Richard Eyre appears to have decided to try to make his version of Private Lives distinctive by having the lead characters be less like the sort of actors delivering Coward lines than one would expect in a Coward play -- in other words make it sound less like a Coward version of Private Lives. In this respect I cannot improve on this comment by the most consistently discerning of the major Toronto drama critics, Robert Cushman in the National Post (Sept. 27):

[In the Paris apartment scenes] "The sex is there alright, and the regret, but the wit has mostly gone missing. Coward's lines ... do need charged crispness. Cattrall's delivery is often flustered, and she underrates the adjectives. Gross is effectively hushed rather than conventionally clipped ...."

The English actors who play the new spouses, Anna Madeley and Simon Paisley-Day, are very effective in their supporting roles. Paul Gross' English accent needs some work but his performance as Elyot is on a par with Kim Cattrall's as Amanda. They work well together in their extended scenes although both seem, for my taste, rather more energetic and knockabout in their roles than I think Coward contemplated but clearly it is what director Eyre wants.

Those who are familiar with Kim Cattrall based only on her role on the television series Sex and the City may not appreciate the range of her acting talent, some of which is on display in "Private Lives". I was particularly taken by her performance as Gloria Scabius in a 2010 award-winning British television mini-series based on a 2002 book by the Scottish writer William Boyd, a favourite novelist of mine: Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (Knopf). As for Paul Gross he has demonstrated his theatrical acting skill on stage at Stratford and in worthy endeavours like his impressive effort involving the WWI movie he both directed and acted in: Passchendaele.

I am sometimes amused and always interested by the often differing reviews of plays in Toronto, Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake of the drama critics for the three Toronto daily newspapers: Robert Cushman of the National Post, Kelly Nestruk of the Globe and Mail and Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star (see for example my column No.96 on www.RickardsRead.com "Critics duelling over An Ideal Husband", posted June 3, 2010).

Among this trio only Cushman (like the critics for the New York Times) does not provide 'ratings' for plays he reviews based on assigning a number of stars out of four -- and good for him. He also seems to me to be the Toronto critic least inclined to bow in the direction of the trendy. As for his review of Private Lives he does not seem to care much for this production although he does not come right out and dump on it. I say "seem" because, even after rereading his review (National Post, Sept.27), I cannot find anything like an overall verdict on this production.

The Globe and Mail's Kelly Nestruk gave this Private Lives production a modified cheer -- three stars out of four -- although the rating seemed higher than was justified by the language of the review (Globe, Sept 26,2011).

Richard Ouzounian of the Star gave this version of Private Lives a rave review ending with a grade of four stars out of four (Star, Sept.26). This could hardly have surprised anyone who had read his article and interviews about this production of the play just prior to its opening (Star, Sept.24). It was so smarmy that his subsequent review of the play itself seemed like part two of the article.

This Coward play has been revived for both West End and Broadway productions a dozen times since its first appearance in a theatre. Although I would have preferred a more traditional production of Private Lives I enjoyed this one. Pat enjoyed it rather more than I did and admonished me that I should not have approached this production almost as if I had expected Noel Coward himself to appear on stage.


by Alastair Rickard

For information and tickets for Private Lives, go to www.mirvish.com or call 416-872-1212

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

(No.173) Manulife myth & Sun Life reality

I have watched and commented in these columns on the disgraceful conduct of various financial services company CEOs and their senior 'team members'. It should have come as no surprise to the supposed 'experts' that the mixture arising from the pursuit of financial self-aggrandizement, incompetence and the willingness to play fast and loose with other people's money formed a mixture toxic in its consequences, one that in the case of too many U.S. and European financial companies was genuinely poisonous.

Canada's financial services marketplace had and still has its share of incompetent, risk-taking senior managers masquerading before an audience of media and analysts as visionary leaders. However in Canada there existed what was absent in the U.S. and Europe: vigorous solvency regulation combined with effective and active enforcement.

It was this regulatory reality that was largely responsible for Canada's favourable record post-2007 financial meltdown. Canadian bankers occasionally become restive with some of the strictures of regulation. They have objected in the past and still do (for a very recent example see the public disagreement on further tightening of regulation between the CEO of the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Governor of the Bank of Canada). The favourable record of Canada's financial sector has provided an opportunity for Canadian bankers to take bows which mainly belong to those who kept them from aping their international peers: the federal financial regulators.

The bulk of my years as a life insurance executive (as well, in my spare time, as a writer, public speaker and editor of the Canadian Journal of Life Insurance) were spent at the head office of Canada's first and only major life insurance company operated anything like a true mutual owned by its participating policyholders: the Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada (founded 1868). Its name was changed to the rather silly Clarica Life when, unwisely and unnecessarily, it was demutualized early in 1999 at the instance of its senior management, an action that set the stage for the Dec. 2001 announcement of Clarica's takeover by Sun Life and its inevitable subsequent disappearance.

Although Mutual Life had gradually fallen under the sway of certain senior executives and uninformed directors who never really believed in, much less supported mutuality, many people in the company believed in mutuality and supported its continuation as the best way to serve the longer term interests of its policyholders as well as preserving its independence. That latter group included me.

It was against that background that I became an unenthusiastic passenger on Sun Life's takeover train transporting the corpus of what had recently been a superior mutual company owned by its par policyholders (who made up virtually all of its policyholders) to a place where shareholder interests routinely trump those of policyholders.

It wasn't long after I alighted at the Sun Life station that I observed first hand a variety of things about which I had heard before. One was the almost visceral competitive feeling between some people at Sun and those at Manulife.

I did not find this atmosphere off-putting since I had never been a fan of Manulife. Indeed, as editor of CJLI I had created an award I dubbed the Sir Mackenzie Bowell Award named after Canada's least distinguished prime minister (Dec.21,1894-April 27,1896). I awarded it periodically to recognize particular instances displaying an absence of excellence involving the Canadian life insurance industry.

One of my award's recipients had been a CEO of Manulife. It was intended to recognize his having made what I regarded as a mockery out of the practise of mutuality. (Manulife along with Sun Life, Confederation Life, Canada Life and the much smaller Equitable Life of Canada were then all still mutualized former stock companies which had become mutuals in the late 1950s/early 1960s as a way of avoiding foreign takeover. Equitable Life remains a mutual to this day.)

As an emotionally detached 'inside' observer of this culture of corporate competitiveness I was interested by the envy sometimes on display in certain quarters. When Manulife was selling truckloads of guaranteed variable business but Sun much less of this type of product I would smile as I heard certain Sun Life executives lament the fact that Sun trailed Manulife in what was a self-evidently risky market and indeed a less attractive one than some others. Before long it turned out this product would have rather different impacts on the two companies.

All of this came to mind as I read yet another article about Manulife by Tara Perkins in the Globe and Mail's Report on Business (Sept. 24, 2011). I have written a number of columns about Sun Life including its shortcomings as well as about the extent to which Sun has been shortchanged in comparison with Manulife in the financial media (see the list at the conclusion of this column). The Globe's ROB, like most of the financial press, has long devoted a much greater number of column inches to Manulife than to Sun Life and, as the absence (pre-financial ditch) of red flags attest, with little compensatory advantage to readers.

Indeed various elements of the financial services paparazzi -- at least until Manulife went into a deep financial ditch and its then CEO Dominic D'Alessandro went crying to Ottawa to seek regulatory relief for the situation in which the company had put itself as the result of its risk taking (and got less than he sought) -- had habitually preferred to breathlessly report the wondrous performances of both Manulife and its eminently quotable CEO. (I note in passing my understanding that during D'Alessandro's imperium his successor as CEO, Donald Guloien, was at his right hand filling the role of 'Little Sir Echo').

Donald Stewart, CEO of Sun Life and far from a pursuer of media attention, was never so appealing a subject for this crowd.

I was amused by how the applause for D'Alessandro's comments about and 'leadership' of Manulife managed to drown out mention of negatives. For example: of how, in order to inflate Manulife profits, the cost of protecting the company by hedging the considerable financial risk arising from the sale of huge volumes of guaranteed variable business was eliminated through ceasing to hedge beginning in 2004 -- at a subsequent cost to the company measured in the billions of dollars, and counting. Meanwhile at Sun Life, with Donald Stewart as CEO, the hedging of the same type of product risk continued.

In the Sept. 24 Globe ROB article a securities analyst essayed the useful suggestion that Manulife should sell John Hancock Life of Boston which it had purchased for $10.4 billion in 2004 (a mere coincidence of timing ref. Manulife's hedging decision?) and realize funds with which to further gird its financial loins as it faces yet more losses arising from its 'risky business' which even today is still only 60% hedged. He didn't mention such money-losing aspects of John Hancock's operation in the U.S. as its in-force Long Term Care business.

I invite anyone with nothing better to do to revisit the uncritical, almost fawning reception that Manulife's purchase of John Hancock Life received in most quarters of the media and securities communities as the activities of the two D'Alessandros (Dominic of Manu and David of John Hancock) titillated their followers. Still, there were rather more than a corporal's guard of people around who knew something about the reality of the North American life insurance business and who were able to point out at the time (had they been asked) that Manulife was overpaying significantly for a company that was in decline -- but, where never is heard a discouraging word .... until of course the post-2007 meltdown loomed.

The most recent market reversion to downturn once again challenges Manulife's financial position, one which has already experienced the loss of $billions and is looking at still further possible losses this year in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Which brings me back to Donald Stewart of Sun Life.

Stewart will retire as Sun Life Financial's CEO on Nov. 30 this year. During the time I worked for Sun I did not spend much time with him but, as I have written previously, I liked and respected him, particularly the way he treated people even as I disagreed with some of what he said and did as CEO.

It should be more widely recognized by the so-called experts on the life insurance industry that, while D'Alessandro of Manulife was better copy as he performed his crowd pleasing leadership pirouettes for the media and the market (from those performances the financial chickens are still coming home to roost), Donald Stewart was quietly doing what shareholders and policyholders were entitled to expect him to do: protect Sun Life and its future.

He brought Sun Life Financial through a very dangerous period for the North American and European financial system and did so with stability, minimized losses during the Wall Street generated crisis and without serious speculation then or now about the company's future financial stability. By comparison with what has occurred involving some financial institutions in the U.S. and Europe since 2007 -- and at Manulife -- that is no small achievement.

Let it also be said that Donald Stewart will leave Sun Life as a company whose financial condition in a still tumultuous period can be regarded confidently by its various stakeholders as one that will not be the victim of a Manulife-style financial roller coaster -- provided his successor Dean Connor is as careful and as thoughtful a CEO as Stewart has been.

That is the Sun Life reality as distinct from the Manulife myth of superiority so readily swallowed by those whose business it was to have known better. Eventually a marketplace with too little understanding of the realities of the life insurance business here and abroad may yet awaken to that important distinction.


by Alastair Rickard

References:

to read other columns on the subject of Manulife and Sun Life posted this year to RickardsRead.com, see for example:

No.132, posted Jan. 15, 2011, "Sun Life & Manulife: returns and departures"

No.149, posted April 28, 2011, "Sun Life & Manulife: bye-bye retrocession"

No.153, posted May 24, 2011, "Sun Life numbers: kumquats & apples"

No.143, posted March 29, 2011, "Manulife = another Elvis sighting"

No. 138, posted Feb.23, 2011, "Sun Life's Canadian jewel"

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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