From the moment I heard Jason Priestley was coming to Toronto to perform in Canadian Stage's production of David Mamet's Race, I was intrigued. My memories of Priestley were stuck in the 90s, when we were both young and full of promise. I was born the same year as Priestley and began my somewhat dubious acting career in Toronto around the same time that he was cast in the original Beverly Hills 90210 series. While I was scrambling to find work, taking on jobs like playing Yogi Bear at Canada's Wonderland, he was signing big time contracts with television's most prolific producer, Aaron Spelling. A group of friends and I used to watch 90210 during its first couple of seasons. Priestley currently stars in Call Me Fitz on HBO Canada but I have yet to view an episode, so I was interested to see for myself how Priestley had matured as an actor and as a person.
I sat up front at the Jane Mallett Theatre a few weeks back when Now Magazine's Glenn Sumi interviewed Jason about his life and career as a sort of preview to his performance in Race. The audience was filled with women in their late 30s and early 40s who had fond memories of watching Jason as Brandon Walsh in 90210 back in the day. I myself was more of a Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) fan. Bad boys appealed to me back then and Priestley's Brandon, although very cute, was a bit too sweet for my liking. Priestley seemed fairly relaxed during Sumi's hour long interview. Although there to promote his performance in Race, he had a sense of humour about the desperate housewives in the audience trying to relive their youth by spending one more night with Brandon. These women, after all, are partly responsible for giving Priestley the life he lives today.
Watching the grown up Priestley in Race last night at the Bluma Appel Theatre was a pleasure. It's hard not to like this guy. The play itself is about a rich white man (Matthew Edison) who is accused of raping a black woman and the the two lawyers, one black (Nigel Shawn Williams) and one white (Priestley) who must decide whether or not to defend him. It's a legal drama that reflects the American reality of racism seeping into all areas of a person's life and how a jury is anything but colour blind when it comes to reaching a verdict. Although dealing with serious subject matter, the script is quite funny at times and Priestley is both likeable and believable as Jack Lawson. There were a few palpable moments of tension for the predominantly wealthy, white crowd during last night's performance. Priestley is at his best when bantering back and forth with both Nigel Shawn Williams and Cara Ricketts, who gives a stellar performance as Susan, the firm's young, attractive, black associate.
Growing up in a multicultural suburb of Toronto, racism is something that I don't think about much. My parents taught us that it is a person's character, not their colour, that makes them who they are. Even so, the play did at times make me turn inward to examine my own beliefs. Daniel Brooks' direction is fast-paced with simple yet sleek set design in not quite fifty shades of grey by Debra Hanson. Admittedly, Priestley got me in the door but I'm glad I stayed.
As I was getting ready to write this review, a related story came across the news wires. Ian Ziering, who starred as Steve Sanders alongside Priestley in the original 90210 series, will be joining the Chippendales male dance troupe in Las Vegas to “guest star for four weeks only" in June. Perhaps this means a trip to Vegas for me this summer? Or not.
Canadian Stage's Race plays at The Bluma Appel Theatre until May 5.
Tickets at canadianstage.com.