Not so dumb – Review

In his Chalmers and Jessie award-winning play, Not So Dumb, Lazarus explores a more insidious kind of collective bullying which children (and indeed adults) face when they differ from the crowd: social ostracism by one’s peers. Two years older but just as spunky, Binnie reappears with her ten-year-old compatriot Rocky in Lazarus’s imaginative exploration of the trials of the learning-disabled child. The dramatist accepted a commission to write the play from the Vancouver Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities when he discovered that his bubbly eight-year-old heroine from Schoolyard Gamesembodied many of the traits of the classic dyslexic. Drawing on his own troubled childhood experiences as the gifted class ‘nerd,’ the playwright created Victor, the earnest, exceptionally bright and lonely classroom day monitor as both a foil and an unlikely kindred spirit for the alienated duo, Binnie and Rocky.

When Binnie and Rocky’s beloved reading teacher, Mrs. Smith, also a one-time ‘L.D.’ (73), fails to show up for their bi-weekly tutorial, the curious youngsters decide to pillage her filing cabinet in search of their own confidential assessments. Hobbled by their dyslexia and dysgraphia however, neither child can decipher her comments. When Victor catches them red-handed, the trio conflict, compare notes on the relative perils of not fitting in, and ultimately co-conspire to read and replace the files. In the process, Lazarus turns the concept of disability on its head, thereby revealing the special gifts inherent in all three children: Rocky’s sharp intelligence, as evidenced by his swift decoding of the colour filing system, and his mechanical deftness in fixing Victor’s tape-recorder; the cryptic wonder of Binnie’s ‘mirror writing’ — a process which baffles Victor when he tries his hand at it; and Victor’s talents as literary interpreter and sleuth. Not So Dumb not only sheds light on the misunderstood world of the exceptional child, but it demonstrates to its young audiences that kinship can blossom in the most unexpected places.

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In Night Light, Lazarus blends social realism with fantasy in his delightful and insightful look at real and imaginary bullies. While ten-year-old Victor grapples by day with Farley, the soccer-ball-wielding, tough-talking schoolyard underachiever, his little sister Tara wrestles at bedtime with a terrifying reptilian, one-eyed monster, who emerges from the shadows of her dresser drawers. Like J.J. in I met a Bully on the Hill, Victor finds himself saddled with Farley’s homework as a means to stave off the bully’s physical onslaughts. Lazarus too lets Farley’s mask slip in order to illuminate what makes him tick: the bully’s worst fear, as Victor and Tara eventually discover, is failing to live up to the high academic standards set by his engineer father. Little Tara’s night visitations are preceded by nightmarish images of ‘needles and threads’ (118): their father has just been admitted to hospital for a routine hernia operation. With some comical empirical testing prompted by a book on children’s fears, both Victor and Tara ultimately befriend their harassers. Armed with new insights into Farley’s motivation, Victor evolves from scapegoat into amicable, if rigorous, tutor. When Tara realizes that her ‘creature’ has feelings too, she takes him under her wing, agrees to draw his portrait, and begins to give him English lessons. Lazarus makes marvellous comic use of dramatic irony in his depiction of the scary monster who just wants to be loved. In Night Light (which also won a Jessie Award), neither Farley nor ‘Goodge’ — as the Green Thumb monster was fondly dubbed — are what they appear to be. ‘Bullies,’ as Lazarus compassionately demonstrates, ‘are more scared than anybody’ (131).

Ostracism, non-conformity and peer pressure are central issues in Secrets, the final play in the Not So Dumb anthology. The playgrounds, teasing, and childhood banter of Lazarus’s earlier pieces are replaced with highschool parties, rumours, and rock music. Binnie, Rocky, Victor, and Susan return to the stage as worldly teenagers grappling with questions of sexuality, honesty, fidelity, and self-esteem. The play chronicles the disintegration of the teenage romance between childhood pals Binnie and Rocky, the unlikely but promising conjunction of Victor and Susan, and a step towards self-understanding for all four.Secrets is arguably the most dramatically complex in Lazarus’s quartet: it uses dovetailed plots, theatrical asides, doubled roles, and, expressionistic masks which serve to differentiate his non-conformist protagonists from the antagonistic, trendy in-crowd who dominate the social scene.

Secrets, as Lazarus’s resonant title suggests, is a play about hidden truths. Masked or not, in this complicated adolescent theatrical realm nobody is quite what he/she seems to be. Against the back-drop of a party at Victor’s house, Victor, Susan, Binnie and Rocky reveal their innermost selves — warts and all — to the audience and eventually to each other. Both Victor and Susan are victims of the teenage rumour-mill: he is presumed to be gay; she has been labelled sexually promiscuous; both are actually virgins. Left to their own devices to talk and dance in Tara’s bedroom, the two discover a genuine mutual attraction. Rocky and Binnie, on the other hand, have been sexually active together for some time. Not ready for monogamous commitment but afraid to hurt Binnie, Rocky has concealed a number of tacit sexual encounters from his doting, self-critical partner. When she finally discovers his infidelities, Binnie musters the necessary confidence to break up the relationship. ‘If we’re gonna learn anything from this god-awful night,’ she confides later to Susan, ‘it’s forget what they say. It’s the look in his eyes’ (201). The first step towards happiness is this confusing adolescent world, Lazarus implies in Secrets, is to look beneath the surface when you choose your friends; the second is to have the courage to make your own decisions. As Susan succinctly puts it at the play’s conclusion, ‘… let the cretins think whatever they want’ (205).