Suburban Motel experiment offers heartfelt black comedy
BY LIZ NICHOLLS, EDMONTON JOURNAL APRIL 30, 2015
Problem Child, Risk Everything
Part of: The Suburban Motel Series
Written by: George F. Walker
Directed by: Jeff Page
Starring: Gianna Vacirca, Neil Kuefler, Elliott James, Rebecca Starr, Chris W. Cook
Where: C103, 85329 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through May 11
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)
“What’s wrong with you these days? How come the slightest thing can set you off?” says a mother to her daughter in Risk Everything. Yeah, well, Carol, there is this little matter of your bad gambling debts, the murderous thug waiting outside in his car, the human bomb inside, the pornographer in bed with you ... The list goes on.
We’re in a nondescript motel room on the outskirts of chaos, a bunker with a janitor who sobers up once a week to clean the joint. And the people who check in may look tough as hell but really they’re desperate, one logical but crazy plan away from oblivion.
Yes, we’re back in the world of George F. Walker, at the intersection of despair and hilarity where you can never quite figure which way the traffic is coming at you. Welcome back George, we’ve missed you. Canadian theatre hasn’t been exactly a hotbed of hard-edged, tightly wound black comedy of late.
In figuring out how to alternate all six plays of Walker’s ’90s Suburban Motel cycle, with their revolving gallery of feisty and furious low-lifes, Edmonton’s enterprising Punctuate! Theatre does something unprecedented in professional Canuck theatre. Wednesday night, they launched their grand project with Risk Everything and Problem Child, the latter the most-produced of the series, the former perhaps the least.
The two “comedies of anxiety,” both directed by Jeff Page, share a young couple, ex-hooker ex-junkie Denise (Gianna Vacirca) and her ex-con fella RJ (Neil Kuefler), who got addicted to daytime “confrontation” reality TV while in the slammer. In Problem Child, the more satisfying play of the two and the most complex in tone, they’re holed up, desperate to get their baby back from foster care. They’re blocked by a smug, sanctimonious social worker played by Rebecca Starr, whose condescending smile could freeze a Jack Daniels at 100 paces.
The world calls them losers, of course. But what Denise and RJ, along with the sodden motel janitor Phillie (Elliott James), haven’t lost is a sense of outrage. And though the production may be pitched a little uniformly high to be sustainable, the actors certainly commit to their outrage. As Vacirca’s performance vividly conveys, Denise’s outrage is hurled at the certainty that the deck is stacked against “people like us, the scum of the earth.” The outrage mustered by Kuefler’s RJ is directed at the egregious assaults on humane behaviour and fair play in the cheesy talk shows he watches. Which means he actually maintains a shred of hopefulness in a chaotic world.
James has a show-stopping comic presence as the phlegmatic Phillie, reduced to inarticulate fury from time to time by his own sense of injustice. “I’m a drunk; I’m not a kidnapper. There’s a difference,” he explains reasonably to Denise late in Problem Child. But he’ll try again: “It’s something I could take pride in.” You’ve got to love him for his refusal to give up, no matter the odds.
Risk Everything is a thinner, more purely farcical kind of comedy. It adds to the mix Carol (Kristine Nutting), a risk junkie whose appetites and evasions spread risk around her in a way that escalates wildly. Like so many Walker characters, she has put her hooks into the pop-sociology lexicon of self-justification. And she uses it amusingly. Nutting’s performance nails a wheedling kind of improvised grievance in every scene; she isn’t always audible, though, unlike her furious daughter. Chris W. Cook has a droll cameo as the gallant next-door pornographer with the hots for Carol. The play isn’t as bruising in its humour as Problem Child; no play that contains a thug called Steamboat could be, probably. But it’s propelled at a brisk pace.
Nothing is going to be truly OK ever again,” says Denise at the end of Problem Child. The desperation of knowing that makes for a particularly layered kind of black comedy, heartfelt, absurd, and apocalyptic. That’s Walker. And I can’t wait to see more.
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal