Anna Blair plays Theresa, a workaholic magazine writer taking a chance on a blind date with Tony (Blaine Smith). Gilman takes almost too much time setting up the characters and relationships, but once Theresa has politely dismissed Tony and he refuses to leave her alone, the tension starts to build. Smith underplays Tony nicely, letting just a hint of "something's not quite right here" creep into his initial scenes with Theresa. Blair's portrayal is complex and subtle; Theresa is a smart woman who fights becoming a victim in an unavoidably victimizing situation.
A subplot involving Theresa's interview with a Hugh Hefner type (played with straight-faced sincerity by Steve Callahan) adds humor and irony. We start off thinking Tony's the nice guy and the porn movie maker is the scum, but things don't turn out that way. Tony turns violent, and Theresa's world spins out of control. Gilman keeps the play from turning into a predictable soap opera by allowing Theresa's relationships with her co-workers (B. Weller, Gerry Love and Julie Venegoni) to grow in unexpected ways. Weller is especially compelling as a man trying to make sense of gender politics in a situation that makes no sense. Kay Love, as Detective Beck, provides equal measures of sympathy and information.
The ending is frustrating for characters and audience alike, but true to life. Sometimes the boy gets the girl and it's not a happy thing.
Playwright George F. Walker also deals in unhappiness; his sadly apt title Escape from Happiness encompasses both the characters' journey and the audience's reaction to this production. The difficult script is a kind of Sopranos meets The Three Stooges -- a stylistic hodgepodge that might have been compelling if the characters were sympathetic or interesting. The confusing plot concerns a down-and-out dysfunctional family living in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Cops and robbers come and go while three sisters try to find out why bags of drugs were found in their basement, but it all just seems like a lot of swearing and clichés for no reason. There's social commentary, psychobabble and high philosophical thought thrown in for good measure, but none of it rings true.
Escape from Happiness is the inaugural production of Muddy Waters Theatre Company, founded by Cameron and Patty Ulrich to "produce, provide theatre education, and train actors in stage combat." It's easy to see why they were attracted to Walker's script -- it provides sizable roles for women and lots of fighting opportunities. Sadly, director Cameron Ulrich seems to have mistaken yelling for acting, and the actors play almost all of their scenes at full volume with overdone intensity. It's almost two hours until intermission, and my ears were aching.
Only Pamela Reckamp, as middle sister Mary Anne, consistently conquered the material. She was able to move between silly and serious in the blink of an eye, a necessary ability in this play. She seemed to be really living in this bizarre world, listening, reacting and changing. Even her costume choices revealed a precise understanding of her character; shiny floral-print pajamas were unique and exactly right for her, while everyone else was in vaguely appropriate but unremarkable garb.
Jennie Losapio as a female cop and Robert Ashton as a bumbling crook had a few bright moments, but they weren't enough. The script's tendency to veer too far into cartoon-land without comic payoffs left no escape from the production's tedium. Even the stage combat fizzled. Everything just took too long -- even the curtain call.
Muddy Waters has devoted the rest of its season to two more plays by Walker, who has won several Canadian playwriting awards. I hope they're saving the good stuff for next time.
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