I've wondered for a long time why Canadian playwright George F. Walker hasn't received the mainstream notoriety in the States that he has north of the border. Someone told me he's thought of as the Canuk Terrence McNally, which is, I suppose, as neat a cubbyhole as any, in terms of shorthanding his penchant for irreverent, yet deeply melancholy, humanism...but truly, truly (as Culp and Cosby used to say to one another on "I Spy") he is quite genuinely his own thing.
He invents quirky, anxiety-ridden, idiosyncratic characters; his balance of comedy against that drama is awesomehe is often at his funniest when the onstage situation is most desperate; and he is wonderful with dialogue. It's not poetic dialogue by any stretch, just contemporary colloquial English, but it rocks, man, and it rocks because it's sharp, laser-intense, and unexpected. Characters come at things from odd angles, out of left field, with an oft-touching, always contradictory humanity. Take, for example, a lawyer who has decided to be a Crusader for Good after a soul-cleansing stroke, whose method of nobility is to "deke" the legal system with the very unethical tricks that drove him away from corporate law (that's the hero of "Love and Anger", the first Walker experience I hadat the New York Theatre Workshop in 1990, to be precisewhich, to put it simply, knocked me on my ass). Take, for another, a small-time hood who doesn't "do violence" because being non-violent is his "thing" and "what are you without a thing?" (You find this gent in "Criminal Genius", about which, more in a minute.) And of course, Walker is a master storyteller...
...well, almost. Sort of...
The master storyteller thing is the part that, if I'm being honest with myself, as one of his most vocal fans (to say nothing of being honest with you, dear reader), may be Walker's bête noir. He sets up great premises, putting the most delightfully complex characters in opposition (and in collusion) with one another. He takes them to extreme, interesting places. He never loses your attention, interest, compassion, empathy, he's one of the best "page turner" playwrights ever, you always want to know what happens next...
...and you're almost always unsatisfied by what happens last. Somehow, for some reason, most of his playsand forgive the starkness of the metaphor, but I have to put it this way to be precisedon't quite "come." The orgasm of completion, the release, is never adequately delivered. And in pieces that rely on plot as much as Walker's do...that frustration can nag, even though it does so quietly, in the back of your mind, and against your will, because you just hate the notion that a guy who took you so far in such a new way didn't manage to go over the finish line. (As a fellow who has dabbled for fun and minimal profit in the realm of science fiction, I free-associate to George Alec Effinger, another brilliant stylist who creates magnificently enticing worlds, situations, concepts and characterswho has suffered much the same fate as Walker for much the same reason. He is lionized within SF circles and among his peers, but wide, mainstream success has eluded him...along with satisfactory conclusions to his fascinating tales.)
The good news is, the specific architecture of Walker's "Suburban Motel" six-play cyclewhich Rattlestick Productions at the Theatre Off Park will be presenting repertory-style in its entirety over the next few monthsmay mitigate that, and perhaps put Walker over the top in these parts. Finally. Already, within a certain segment of the theatrical community, there is an enthusiastic buzz about not only the endeavor, but the effectiveness of the first two installments under the direction of Daniel De Raey. The buzz is not unwarranted.
Dig the premisethe cycle (actually, it's the first complete go-round in a projected series of cycles, and it's being presented in consecutive three-play rotations, 1-3 this summer, 4-6 in the fall) is set present day, in a room in the suburban motel of the title, just outside a large unnamed city. It's a room in which stuff happens, often troubling stuff, sometimes stuff that tests the morality of its inhabitants, sometimes the mortality, always nervous stuff o the brink of explosion, always a little bizarre, a little out there. A recent collection of Walker plays (whose Canadian publisher, Coach House Press, went bust mere months after its release [no direct causality implied]) is called "Shared Anxiety" and, sure enough, this stuff-laden locale is a magnet for obsession, compulsion, agitation and all manner of psychological unease.
And indeed, it is shared by all who check in.
Meaning, the stories intersect. The characters from story A may wander into story B...a minor plot thread left dangling at one play's conclusion may be the major motivation for another play to follow.
Meaning thatalthough the plays are self-contained (they are all one acts, by the way, approximately an hour-twenty in length)there is something of a serial to it all.
Meaning, the stories don't have to complete, not entirelythey can be a little unfinished, a little unresolved, because the continuity of the universe is the inducement to come back for more. And thus the prior defeating weakness is rendered a built-in strength. Cool, that.
In Part One, "Problem Child", a young, working class couple, Denise (Tasha Lawrence) and RJ (Christopher Burns), shakily back on their feet after problems with the law and drugs, find themselves at the mercy of a sanctimonious ultra-Christian social worker (Kathleen Goldpaugh), as they try to reclaim their toddler daughter from the foster home to which she has been sent. They pick up two unlikely allies in the portly, drunkenly philosophical hotel manager, perhaps intentionally named Phillie (Mark Hammer at the performances I saw; Alan Benson alternates in the role)and a gun.
There's more gunplay of a darkly comic sort in Part Two, the aforementioned "Criminal Genius", in which two petty criminals, Rolly (Dan Moran) and his son Stevie (Jim Grollman) somehow manage to make a "simple" arson job turn into a not-so-simple kidnapping of their victim's grown, resentful daughter (Cheryl Gaysunas). Which pisses off their boss, Shirley (Carolyn Swift)almost as much as it bewilders Phillie, who stumbles into it all and becomes a willing pawn.
(When Part Three: "Risk Everything" is presented, I'll amend this review to include a few more details. For now, I'll just quote the program plot synopsis: "Denise and RJ return to cope with her mother"this being the mother responsible for the confiscation of their kid in the first place"and a pornographer wannabe, Michael.")
Under director Daniel De Raey's guidance, the pieces whip by with an edgy energy in sync with the persona of Walker's writing. Which sounds like a pretty basic requirement, but I've seen Walker's stuff directed less well, and with less of an "eye" and "ear" for how it should be staged and paced. DeRaey understands that simple is best, and he knows it's all about riding a wave of quicksilveralbeit over a seabed of ground glass. If I have any carp at all it's that sometimes you can feel the cast working at it...and in those moments (most of which come in the loonier "Criminal Genius"), it feels a bit memorized, and you become aware of the writing in the wrong way. In that regard, Walker is like Mamet. His affectations are much less obvious (very little in the way of elliptical speech or profanity without purpose, for example) but he is, much of the time, into the dynamic rhythms of neurosis and screwball logic, which tends to manifest in curt, rapid-fire exchanges. And unless such exchanges are informed by precisely nuanced naturalness in the delivery, they become unnaturally highlighted as a style choicewhereupon the audience stops believing in "the world" and starts smelling the ink.
But as I say, this is a merely occasional lapse, and the ensemble of actors is so mind-bendingly on target in terms of how well they're cast and how uncannily they deliver the goods, that it's all quite forgivable. Indeed, you suspect the kinks will be worked out in time. Virtually all of the performers came as news to me, yet most of them are as well-seasoned as a Pakistani entree. How did we miss them all? Well, the ones who aren't still very young seem to have made their mark regionally, for the most part. And here's hoping New York takes them all to her theatrical bosom and treats them lovingly for their efforts...the better to keep them leaving us for very long ever again.
Here's hoping, too, that as a result, Mr. Walker's extended New York presence becomes even longer than Rattlestick's booking in the "Suburban Motel"...it's time he wasn't such a transient visitor anymore...
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