Crow’s Theatre presents the world premiere of Michael Healey’s satirical comedy about technotopia gone wrong in Toronto.
The Master Plan
Written by Michael Healey
Based on the book Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy by Josh O’Kane
Directed by Chris Abraham
Set design and props by Joshua Quinlan
Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell
Video design by Amelia Scott
Featuring: Christopher Allen, Ben Carlson, Phillippa Domville, Peter Fernandes, Tara Nicodemo, Yanna McIntosh, Mike Shara
At Crow’s Theatre through October 8.
To paraphrase Karl Marx: a spectre is haunting The Master Plan, Michael Healey’s fast- paced, sharp satiric comedy now playing at Crow’s Theatre. It is the spectre of Jane Jacobs. She never appears in the play, but her ghost hovers over the proceedings.
But there is a world of difference between the grassroots movement that was mobilized over a period of two decades (eventually led by urban activists like Jacobs and others) that squelched the Spadina Expressway, and the Sidewalk Labs fiasco that was announced in 2017 by Waterfront Toronto and was pretty much kaput a couple of years later. If you blinked, you might have missed it.
The seven member cast of The Master Plan perform a variety of roles, from major players including Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs and chief spokesperson for Alphabet, the Google created parent company and a major financing partner in the project. Doctoroff, (in a loud, brash, in-your-face tour-de-force of a performance by Mike Shara) makes it clear that this new, visionary, “smart-city of the future” that he intends to build “from the internet up” will be a for-profit enterprise. Doctoroff, who previously worked as a land developer in New York City, compares himself to Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs’ nemesis when she lived there and sparred with Moses over the urban renewal project involving the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway in the 1960s. Jacobs details this episode in her classic book on progressive urbanism, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
These moves by ultra-rich technocrats like Larry Page at Google (currently facing a national boycott in Canada) and Elon Musk et al, are attempts to engage in a new form of city building that is consciously high on technological innovation, information gathering and control while low on democratic governance. To them, a project like Sidewalk Labs is no more than a petri dish experiment in developing much larger ambitions toward privatizing the public sphere.
For the home team we have the low-profile (a better term to use than “shady”) bureaucrats who comprise the board and staff of Waterfront Toronto, the power brokers who are in charge of the undeveloped acreage of the Toronto Port Lands which has been the subject of discussion and debate for many years. Ben Carlson, Phillippa Domville, Tara Nicodemo and Yanna McIntosh play Will Fleissig, Meg Davis, Kristina Verner, and Helen Burstyn respectively, who are the politically well connected senior staff at Waterfront Toronto. They also double as Justin Trudeau, John Tory, Kathleen Wynne, Frances Nunziata and others. The actors are universally stellar in their performances of roles both large and small.
Peter Fernandes plays Tree (among other roles) who acts as narrator throughout the play and does much of the heavy lifting as far as exposition goes. Although the character of Tree (an aged Norway maple under threat of being cut down) is a lovely device by the playwright, played with much verve and energy, in the end the sheer amount of information that Fernandes as Tree must deliver (clad appropriately by costume designer Ming Wong in a green fleece) becomes confusing and drowned in a myriad of minutiae and extraneous detail to the extent that, at times – wait for it – you can’t see the forest for the Tree.
There are also some problems with regard to who the good guys and bad guys are in The Master Plan. Let’s remember it is performed under the rubric of “fiction” right from the beginning, and one of the fictions that is proffered by Helen Burstyn (former board chair at Waterfront Toronto appointed by the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne and subsequently turfed by the Conservative government of Doug Ford) is that Dan Doctoroff “is becoming a problem” in negotiations around the Quayside project, a parcel of 13 acres of undeveloped land on the waterfront that is to be developed into a high-tech community. This really is a bit rich.
In real life, Doctoroff, (who, in the play, is constantly advising people to read his autobiography), is an archconservative who studied economics and contract law at the University of Chicago under former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and later was an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, another high profile failure of capitalism whose story will be told in The Lehman Trilogy, later this season at Canadian Stage.
Waterfront Toronto knew who they were getting with Dan Doctoroff. By 2019, both Meg Davis and Kristina Verner were denying accusations by a federal ethics committee that the fix was in from the beginning and that the hiring process was flawed from the start. (Globe and Mail, 02/21/2019 by Josh O’Kane). They suddenly found themselves as partners in that most delicate of all democratic dances that occur when dark secrets meet the light of day: the Transparency Tango (my idiom, not Healey’s).
In the second act of The Master Plan there is a slap-stick scene involving Meg Davis interacting with a birthday cake that had the audience rolling in the aisles. After all of the dicey backroom contract negotiations, tenuous non-disclosure agreements, missed deadlines, leaked documents, inattention to major issues such as data governance and privacy implications and a process that the Ontario auditor-general criticized as having “insufficient government oversight,” it finally dawns on the highly frustrated Davis that she cannot have her cake and eat it too; so she has an uber hissy fit and quite literally destroys the whole cake! It’s a nice metaphor because everyone at Waterfront Toronto was an enabler who helped to bake that cake.
Chris Abraham’s use of arena staging helps free the play to live on its own merits. Not being hampered by the kind of stage directions a playwright might prescribe in a proscenium setting, Abraham has skillfully orchestrated a rapid coming and going of entrances and exits at all four corners of the stage that really helps move the play along.
The set and prop design by Joshua Quinlan does the same. The boardroom tables are set at 90 degree angles and the design elements that are the mock-ups of the soon to be built “Quayside” are not obtrusive – they are interesting and advance the storyline. Overall, an economy of scale with regard to the use of props and set pieces that is one of the interesting aspects of arena staging.
Also, as artistic director at Crow’s, Abraham’s decision to commission Michael Healey to write the script in a satirical, comedic vein rather than docudrama, was the right one. It allowed Healey to do what he does best and it allowed the audience to enjoy themselves in what otherwise could have been a series of depressing missteps and calamities. Most of all, it allowed Abraham to take what in real time was a slow, encumbered process and turn it into a fast-paced sense of urgency and high powered decision making that is highly entertaining. The tragedy that ensues is more like The Tramp slipping on a banana peel and landing on his bum kind of schadenfreude tragic.
Still, there is a bit of a rushed feeling to it all. I read that Sam Mendes worked over a three year period while developing The Lehman Trilogy. With all of the budgetary pressures and constricted rehearsal periods, it is really difficult to present new work that is completely formed and ready to be put in front of an audience unless we begin to think about changing our work models. The normal rehearsal time for any play at one of our small to mid-size theatres in Toronto is 3 maybe 4 (if you are lucky) weeks. Can you make a good play in that amount of time? It’s difficult, but Crow’s company has done a beyond admirable job with this production. I’ll be surprised if it does not take home some Dora Awards this season.
Toward the end of the second act, there is a poignant, entirely fictitious scene injected by Healey, in which the character of Cam Malagaam, a Sidewalk Labs engineer, (played by Christopher Allen) expresses his deep sorrow that the project had imploded and was now cancelled entirely. He had so hoped that the ideas and ideals that Jane Jacobs had declared so many years ago might finally begin to get the recognition and realization that they deserved. His sincerity coupled with his utter naivete about how capitalism actually works, was, for me, one of the quiet revelations of the evening and a well placed denouement by the playwright.
One of the joys of arena staging is that you get to see at least seventy-five per cent of the audience watching the play just as you are. I couldn’t help noticing that sitting oppositely across the stage from me in the front row was David Peterson, a former Ontario premiere. His demeanor was generally serious and he didn’t respond to the play’s humor with the same enthusiasm the way others did. At times, his winced brow and almost worried look seemed like that of a recovering politician who might have been experiencing a few PTSD triggers of his own.
But what about an epilogue? Books are written with concluding chapters and plays must end when the lights go down, while real life goes on. Have city agencies and various levels of government learned anything from the events that transpired between 2017 and 2019? Who is in charge at Waterfront Toronto today?
When the movement led by Jane Jacobs to stop the Spadina Expressway achieved victory, it was acknowledged by one of Ontario’s finest premiere’s and most savvy politicians. On June 3, 1971, knowing when it was time to throw in the towel, Premier William Davis announced: “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, then the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.”
The last words of the play were flashed on the video screens above the stage (so effectively designed by Amelia Scott). They told us that both Meg Davis (the daughter of William Davis), who has worked as senior staff at Waterfront Toronto for sixteen years, is still there along with Kristina Verner.
The new chair of the board of directors is a real estate developer named Jack Winberg. The people in my neighborhood in northwest Toronto were introduced to Winberg by our city councillor, Frances Nunziata (who appears in a cameo role played by Tara Nicodemo). In exchange for some highly questionable community benefits under Section 37 of the city’s building code, Winberg’s company was awarded the contract to build a 32 story apartment complex in the heart of Weston. In return, the Weston Farmer’s Market and a promised “Arts Commons” was truncated to less than half its former self while the Artscape housing complex, which has recently gone into receivership city wide, is causing great anxiety for artists who have no idea what comes next for living spaces that they have occupied for some years.
Jack Winberg recently announced that the real estate development firm, Dream Unlimited, has been selected as one of the partners to design and build the dubiously renovated Quayside project. Currently, in my home village of Weston, 200 residents residing at 33 King Street have been on a rent strike since June against their landlord, Dream Unlimited, citing unfair rent increases, sometimes in excess of 22 percent.
So, have we learned anything? Same old, same old?
Referencing Jane Jacobs’ life and work was a nice touch by the playwright. Her approach to community organizing and neighborhood coalition building is worth remembering. Jacobs’ ladder was high and it contained many rungs, but in the end it was worth the climb. And as we are all now so painfully aware – her struggle continues.
There is another wry marxian axiom that comes to mind after seeing The Master Plan: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
I look forward to Michael Healey’s next play.