When playwright Michael Ross Albert approached me with a personal essay about the behind-the-scenes mayhem of The Little Play That Just Kept Getting Cancelled, I was admittedly a little skeptical.
Two Minutes to Midnight was a vacation-themed two-hander set during the apocalypse, per the pitch in my inbox. Albert suggested titling his Artist Perspective “The Apocalypse Onstage” before proceeding to tell me about the maddening process of getting his play on its feet in the middle of an ongoing and fickle pandemic. To an outside eye, Two Minutes to Midnight was doomed — hell, opening night was postponed yet again just last week due to a positive COVID case on the creative team. I was happy to work with Albert on getting his essay into the world, but a small part of me doubted I’d see the play it described completed and on its feet with an audience: it just didn’t seem to be in the cards, despite a team clinging to the idea of the production moving forward.
I’m pretty stoked that I was wrong.
Two Minutes to Midnight is a snappy, wildly amusing romp through a relationship of Cathy-and-Jamie levels of dysfunction. The setting? An unnamed budget resort. The scenario? The end of the world.
We follow zillennial couple Tracy and Jack through an argument which unfolds in real time against a backdrop of complete chaos. Remember when we as a populace were convinced Hawaii was about to be annihilated due to a glitch in the emergency messaging systems? So does Albert, and he’s concocted a riveting “what-if” situation based on that very snafu. Paradise can give way to the end of the world quite quickly, it turns out: it’s up to us to decide how we navigate that transition.
Cass Van Wyck as Tracy and Luis Fernandes as Jack are a confident, vibrant duo — together, they command the small Assembly black box space with slick comic timing and palpable chemistry. We have no problem believing the couple-ness of their dynamic, even when shit heads south. It’s worth noting Van Wyck and Fernandes also are Assembly Theatre (well, they’re the co-ADs of the indie company): against all odds, they’ve kept the storefront space on Queen West afloat during the pandemic, and that’s no small feat.
As we approach what seems to be the demise of the human race (and no, that’s not a spoiler — the stakes become clear within moments of the show starting), cracks in the relationship begin to emerge: Jack’s an influencer, and not a very good one, and the narcissism of his chosen career is driving Tracy bananas. Tracy’s a pretty typical, liberal twentysomething, one whose relationship with the internet starts and ends at social justice infographics on Instagram. Influencer culture is one of the key throughlines of the play — Albert sure does seem to take issue with online reviewers, which makes writing this piece a little fraught..! — and the commentary which emerges in dialogue between Jack and Tracy masterfully avoids cliche. Jack and Tracy are a wonderful mouthpiece for big ideas on celebritude, the true nature of love, and the intersection of young adulthood with social media omnipotence.
Albert has avoided stereotype across the board: it’s beyond refreshing to see a man portrayed as the image-obsessed influencer, rather than a woman. Both Tracy and Jack are layered individuals with moments of shrillness, imperfection, and tenderness to boot — they’re living and breathing people. A rom-com-style two-hander admittedly had me on high alert for gender-based tropes: those fears weren’t realized, thankfully, and I quickly relaxed into the rapidfire pacing prescribed by Albert and executed nicely by director Janelle Cooper.
The production’s not perfect, to be fair, but it’s a damn entertaining night out. Van Wyck and Fernandes both struggle with balancing enunciation with volume — you’ll have no trouble hearing either of them in the cozy Assembly space, but yelled lines are often quite garbled. And there are too many yelled lines, where nuance is lost in favour of a louder, more slapstick style of comedy. Lighting, too, is inconsistent, and on opening night it seemed there were either missed or under-rehearsed cues. In a space that small, you can hear the panic of a lighting cue gone awry in the frantic tapping on the not-far lightboard.
Despite these relatively minor hiccups, effort has clearly been made to make the breezy, hour-long play feel like a total experience. (Also: more hour-long plays!) You’ll be offered a festive lei when you walk through the door to check in at the tiki bar (read: vaccination verification station), and there are specialty cocktails which, yes, you’re allowed to drink in the theatre. (They’re quite good, too, if a little sugary. Vodkow’s sponsored the production, and on opening night we were offered free samples of the milk-based vodka on the way out.) To that end, Assembly’s a tiny little space, and it’s being sold at 100% capacity (except on Wednesday nights, which will be sold at 50%). Vaccines and masks are required, but those masks can indeed come down for sips of your drink.
Two Minutes to Midnight walks the line between genres well, and there’s a real craft to the playwriting. In the absence of Chekhov’s gun there is Chekhov’s engagement ring, for instance, and despite the plot being rather contained, the play still unfurls at lightning pace and with absolutely no dips in humour or intrigue. Cooper’s helmed a fun, if bare-bones production of a script with real bite to it, and Van Wyck and Fernandes have the energy needed to execute Albert’s vision well — how pleased I am that it finally, finally got to happen.
Two Minutes to Midnight runs at Assembly until April 24. You can find tickets here. Also: more specialty cocktails with gummy sharks.