Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Escape from Happiness"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Larry Stark

"Escape from Happiness"

by George F. Walker
Directed by Kaitrin McDonagh

Set and Lighting Design by John MacKenzie
Scenic Artist Michelle Boll
Set Decoration by Michael Tonner
Combat Choreography by Joe Zamparelli
Producer John MacKenzie
Stage Manager Beth Gustin

Nora...............Sheila Kadra
Elizabeth........LaNette Benken
Mary Ann...........Kate Mahoney
Gail.............Donna Spurlock
Junior.............Gordon Ellis
Tom........Bob Williamsl Cabell
Dian BlacK.........Kate Bernard
Mike Dixon........Russ Fletcher
Rolly Moore........Lance Wesley
Stevie Moore..........Ben Brown

The production of "Escape from Happiness" at The Hovey Players is almost a textbook (or maybe a final exam) for theater reviewers. The play is badly in need of cutting and probably re-writing, but the performances are breathtakingly beautiful. The play is funny and fascinating, and infuriatingly dis jointed. Director Kaitrin McDonagh and her cast wrestle with problems they shouldn't have to solve --- and the poor reviewer has a serious problem of who should go see this show, and why.

First of all, the play is a sprawling comedy full of continual surprises, but the first scene is unplayably irrelevant. The fact that a young man lies writhing in pain on the kitchen floor sets up the (frankly unbelievable) plot is no good reason not to cut it entirely since said plot is amply (painfully) elaborated later. But the guy's helpful wife and her motormouth mother argue about whether he can get up unaided, and that's no way to signal a bewildered audience about what genuine goodies are to come. If it were possible to slip into a seat during the first blackout, this would be a much better experience.

After the irrelevant prelude, the cast spills onstage in a series of bewildering surprises. First there's the mysterious invalid that mother refers to as "The man You call your father" (Gordon Ellis). Then two more daughters appear to make a vague reference to Goldilocks' three bears: The wife (Donna Spurlock)is the youngest --- calm, practical and accepting. The eldest (LaNette Benken) is a firebrand confrontational lawyer ("I'm not a lesbian; I sleep with anyone I want!"). In between is Kate Mahoney's psychological basket-case, clinging to her therapist ("Claire loves me.") and unsure of everything.Director McDonagh has given each one, plus their off-the wall mom (Sheila Kadra), a solid character --- and they bounce off one another like berserk billiard-balls, or like typical sisters.

Then there is a pair of detectives come to investigate and to drop enigmatic hints about just what is to be investigated. Russ Fletcher seems fond of standing with his jacket off and shoulder-holster prominent, playing the hard-boiled cop from old Lloyd Nolan flics, while Kate Bernard looks more like Dianna Rigg from "The Misfits". The sort of solid character-definition that works so well with the sisters turns to stereotype here, because the playwright rarely makes up his mind what to do with this interesting pair.

But there Is a pair of criminals --- father and son --- who drop in waving pistols as though the unarmed family is as dangerous as Saddam Hussein. Lance Wesley as the dope-slapping dad and Ben Brown as his insecure son affect the Southie Boston accents of two-bit hustlers who "only want our merchandise returned." (Could they mean the two huge garbage-bags of white powder the cops found walled into the basement?)

Not content with eight well-defined but totally mismatched charcters, Playwright Walker throws in a scene for two more: the enigmatic father (Bob Williams) and his son-in-law (Gordon Ellis) have a long, tantalizing scene hinting at their "plan" to clense the neighborhood by making all the local hoodlums rid the world of one another. Williams is creepily embarrassed by his former maltreatment of his family, while Ellis' major mode is total terror that someone will, at any time, discover what they're up to.

There is more plot in this review than it deserves because its flimsy premises both hold together and actually interrupt scenes of bombastic dialogue and interaction that are brilliantly acted --- and my advice to any devotees of fine theater is to forget plot entirely and sit back and enjoy the acting. For instance, Ben Brown's flailing pistol as he tries to cover everyone at once; the cascade of emotions playing across Kate Mahoney's puzzled face as she tries to deal with inner as well as outer conflicts; Gordon Ellis'sweaty anxieties as he silently hears disturbing events; or LaNette Benken's gloves-off rages that no one in their right mind would dare to ignite.

In short, this cast gives brilliant performances in an ill-written play despite no real help from the playwright. What a perfect final-exam exercize for Theater Criticism 101!


"Escape from Happiness" (22 November - 7 December)
The Abbott Memorial Theatre, 9 Spring Street, WALTHAM MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide