Cliffhanger by James Yaffe in Ottawa Little Theatre.
As the plot of Cliffhanger unfolds gently, it seems that the playwright by James Yaffe—a respected humanities professor like his protagonist—is presenting wishful thinking about the fate of an unpleasant, incompetent department head and a particularly nasty failing student.
The Mr. Chips type professor has plenty of time (too much) to philosophize about ethics through the 1985 comedy, which never makes it to mystery thriller status. In the current Ottawa Little Theatre production, the leisurely pace is partly attributable to the writing and partly to the directing style of Joe O’Brien.
Although it is doubtful whether any audience members are sitting on the edge of their seats or hanging by the fingernails on even a small cliff during Cliffhanger, they may be mildly amused by the chat about the true meaning of ethics and utilitarianism.
After an uncomfortable beginning, Tony Keenleyside and Janet Banigan as Henry and Polly Lowenthal, the complacent academic couple on the verge of trouble, settle into their roles. Keenleyside plays the steady academic trying to avoid retirement increasingly convincingly. Banigan is suitably protective of her husband but seems less at ease as the pragmatic wife attempting to preserve the couple’s lifestyle.
In the one-dimensional role of the vindictive department head out to modernize the department and force Lowenthal into retirement, Dorothy Charbonneau is—well, very much one-dimensional. Perhaps the director wanted to ensure that no one would care when she was transformed into a corpse (even a wriggling corpse under a carpet). In that case, the role was played as directed. Some other directorial decisions, such as characters dancing to a Cole Porter tune while awaiting arrest, reduce any possible tension in Cliffhanger to zero.
Paul Washer fulfils requirements as the less-than-exciting police detective. Meanwhile, Gabriel DeRooy brings considerable life to the production with a sprightly performance as Melvin, the “screwed-up rich kid” trying to persuade a passing grade out of Lowenthal by any means possible.
This article was originally published in Capital Critic’s Circle on October 19, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.