Adam Bock is a playwright who often pulls the rug out from under his audience. In “A Life,” his 2016 play starring David Hyde Pierce at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, the protagonist drops dead unexpectedly, transforming kvetchy comedy into clinical postmortem. In “The Receptionist,” which Megan Mullally starred in at the Odyssey Theatre in 2009, the passive-aggressive routines of daily corporate life take a malevolent turn that brings geopolitical horror in through the supply closet.
But the surprise of “The Canadians,” now receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory under the direction of Jaime Castañeda, is startling in a way that seems strange even by Bock’s standards.
The first part of this 80-minute comedy plays like a Canadian version of “The Office.” A Montreal native who has lived in the U.S. most of his adult life, Bock plays up the familiar stereotypes of our neighbor to the north, sending up the flat vowels, the hockey madness, the bullying earnestness and endless snow.
An ensemble of five takes on the throng of characters, requiring some cross-gender casting that tips the play into over-the-top parody. But I wasn’t sure if my detachment (not to say rising boredom) was a result of the broadness of the acting or the easy targets of the writing.
Gordy (Kyle T. Hester) works for Mayor Claudette (Linda Gehringer) at Town Hall in Port Alison, Manitoba, a province bordering North Dakota and sharing some of its frigid blankness. In the opening scene, he’s waiting with his two brothers in the bitter cold for his ride to work, listening surreptitiously to “The Magic Flute.”
These brothers (played by Corey Brill and Gehringer, whom at first I assumed was playing a woman) keep harassing him about hockey obligations. At the office, Gordy has a discreet friendship with Brendan (Daniel Chung), who prefers pottery to hockey, just as Gordy prefers opera to Metallica.
An agreeable mush, Gordy tries to avoid getting caught up in the routine office bickering, though one characteristically Bockian scene has him reading back the transcript of a meeting that erupted into a petty squabble between two co-workers, who may have repressed erotic feelings for each other.
In general, romantic drama of any kind unnerves Gordy, though the defrosters don’t come on right away to reveal the reason. Bock wants us to observe the character before establishing definitively that he’s gay.
Brendan’s gay uncle is in the hospital with heart trouble. He was supposed to go on a gay Caribbean cruise with his partner, but now Brendan gets to go instead of his two uncles and he asks Gordy to join him. After Gordy finally accepts the offer, the play transforms from a workplace sitcom set in the land of “Frozen” to a queer version of “The Love Boat.” But this shift alone isn’t what breathes life into the play.
The outsize nature of the comedy continues on the gay cruise, where it becomes obvious that Gordy and Brendan like each other as more than just friends. Unfortunately, Gordy, who is still partly in the closet, is too shy to acknowledge his feelings. He encourages Brendan to hang out with Andy, a rugby player from Manchester (whose accent Brill renders almost as a speech defect), though it’s clear Brendan would rather Gordy object and declare his romantic interest.
“The Canadians” up to this point is a mildly amusing, inessential comedy. The leap from regional lampoon to gay rom-com doesn’t change the play’s basic cartoon dynamics. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, something real takes over.
Gordy and Brendan are befriended by an older gay couple, Wally (Corey Dorris) and Oliver (Gehringer). These likable, louche fellows encourage Gordy to loosen up, have some fun. If he can’t tell Brendan how he feels, he should at least partake in the libidinous delights on board.
Lost and alone in a crowd, Gordy confesses to Oliver that he’s turned off by the superficiality and noisiness of the scene. Oliver, who sees a younger version of himself in Gordy, replies with great compassion for these men who have known alienation and hostility and are allowing themselves a communal moment of sexual freedom. Oliver’s generosity, poignantly rendered in Gehringer’s performance, extends to Wally, who has gone off looking for extracurricular recreation.
Despite their frivolous manner, Oliver and Wally are gay men of genuine depth. They become Gordy’s “spirit guides,” giving him a Dionysian makeover (complete with white skirt, white pumps, white stockings and tousled wig) that transforms not just his appearance but his soul. (Costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova is the giddy star of the production’s design team.)
Gordy’s drag journey becomes unexpectedly moving, making it possible to almost forget the strained start of Castañeda’s production. The script insists that the “acting style should be realistic, not camp,” but that’s not how most of the secondary characters are played.
Truth, however, prevails in the end — a quiet truth about the way strangers can enter our lives, even for a short time, and permanently extend their horizons. Dorris and Gerhringer convey the wisdom of Wally and Oliver that must have inspired Bock to write this odd little play.
Dare I confess that I, who had been so restless for the first 40 minutes, shed a romantic-comedy tear at the end? The deepening portrayals of Hester’s Gordy and Chung’s Brendan made me wish that their lives in Port Alison will forever be imbued with the warmth of their Caribbean revel.
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Ends Oct. 20
Info: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes