Handsome Alice Theatre presents The Tall Building

by Jill Connell

at Motel in Calgary through September 17

Four stars (out of five)

(Photo: Telly James and Geoffrey Simon Brown, courtesy Citrus Photography

Sulla (Genevieve Pare) is anxious. She’s a woman in her thirties, who lives in a tall building, in a city on fire, where coyotes roam the streets.

There’s an assassin (Telly James) – who may or may not be – a figment of Sulla’s imagination, lurking around, bored and lonely  – assassins might look like they have exotic, exciting lives in the movies, but for this melancholy killer, it’s a whole lot of hurry up and wait.

Then, one afternoon, Boy (Geoffrey Simon Brown),a quirky, lonely home schooled kid who’s obsessed with 7-11 slushies and is a not-so-secret admirer of Sully, shows up in her tall building one day to interview her for his self-published student newspaper.

The Tall Building is Edmonton playwright Jill Connell’s brittle, surreal, funny meditation on city life, in a dystopian world where people live atomized lives that are piled on top of one another, even as they’re completely separated from one another.

Pare’s Sully has the look of a telecommuting home office freelancer on deadline who doesn’t have time or inclination to get cleaned up. She wears the same pair of pants day after day after day. Her hair is an odd blend of mullet and buzz cut, and her main company is listening to Radio One broadcast bad news all day.

At one point, Boy asks Sully if she’d like to dance.

“Oh, I don’t dance when I’m depressed,” she says. “I prefer talk radio.”

That’s a kind of verbal non-sequiteur that pops up regularly throughout The Tall Building. Characters don’t so much have conversations with each other, as they narrate their inner thoughts, pausing only to let the other people in the room narrate theirs.

That can be a little bit jarring if you’re an audience member – the dialogue is so anti-dramatic it creates its own brand of dramatic tension – but it also has the ring of truth to it, and is very often funny as hell, too. Connell’s crew of of disconnected narcissists feels like a perfect fit for today’s world (The Tall Building premiered in 2009) of Snapchat obsessives.


It doesn’t hurt that director Denise Clarke assembled an excellent cast to disconnect from one another: Pare is always interesting onstage. You can see her trying to think her way through her emotional alienation, even as she’s aware that she has built herself a world that’s a little too self-contained for her own good.

Simon Brown is completely different from the roles he played last year in The Circle (which he also wrote), The Mousetrap and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (a Lunchbox show). He’s funny, boyish, and over eager, like a puppy working too hard to win a treat. He’s also been basically abandoned by his parents, left to raise himself, which results in his forming an unnatural affinity for 7-11 and its dubious snack bar.

James is the wild card as the assassin. I’m not really sure what his character is even doing in here – but sometimes with storytelling, you just have to take a little leap of theatrical faith. He feels a little like Connell might have accidentally merged an action thriller screenplay with The Tall Building, discovered the software error, and liked the way it all sounded.

At the same time, James has so much calibrated menace onstage at the same time remaining utterly cool, that The Tall Building gradually wins you over with its warped logic.

Clarke has a lot of style as a dancer and writer, and has done a terrific job directing The Tall Building – she’s great at finding ways to physicalize the lonely, weird ways in which we try to conduct 21st century lives. Working with a simple but imaginative design by Hanne Loosen, the duo give The Tall Building the forward momentum its characters are too anxious to give it themselves.

The Tall Building is the first production from a rebranded, revitalized Handsome Alice (formerly Urban Curvz). They’re in a hurry to catch up to – they’re back with a second production, The Good Bride, in two weeks.

If The Tallest Building is any indication, this is one rebrand that will go better than New Coke.