As can happen, George Walker's plan for a play cycle is so good it's a wonder no one thought of it before. Six plays, each one about 90 minutes, no interruptions, each taking place in the same place: inside a strip motel room. It's the right place, the right time in our degraded society, and Walker, who is a Toronto playwright produced frequently here and across Canada, some in the States and some in Britain, shows he's the writer to put it to work.
The overall corporate title of his cycle is "Suburban Motel." It consists of "Problem Child," "Adult Entertainment," "Criminal Genius," "Featuring Loretta," "End of Civilization" and "Risk Everything." The first two opened last weekend in the Factory Theatre. "Criminal Genius" opens Nov. 15. These then run in repertory sometime into December, depending on the demand. If there's any justice (one of the black humor themes for one character), the demand will be huge. The remaining three will be staged in the spring.
Shawn Kerwin's set of a crummy motel room is right on: bathroom, double bed, table, two chairs, TV on a stand, a few glass blocks embedded in one wall as an architectural doodad, wide "picture" window with draw curtains and venetian blinds, glowing soft drink machine squatting outside, framed motel instructions nailed to the door ("In case of emergency," etc. -- solely being there counts as an emergency), walls the color of something an ER orderly would be in a hurry to dispose of.
It comes comes equipped with a guy named Phillie, who sobers on Wednesdays long enough to vacuum and straighten rooms and lecture on the world's lame justice.
One of the operative phrases -- in the two I saw -- is "scum of the earth." I think you can assume we're at the low end of society's food chain, where ex-cons, drunks, hookers, addicts and the fallen duke it out for the remaining scraps, and where members of the clean-up squad like cops and social workers peg away at the mess. One cop who has killed a kid drug dealer says, "He was basically scum," in an attempt to implicate a legal-aid lawyer he has been sleeping with, but she answers: "No, I don't feel like scum. Scum don't have conversations like this one."
She's right. And one of the things Walker makes you pay for is being too quick to assume scum status for anyone in his plays.
A handy idea is that the plays are a bit of stylish black humor, but my sense of it is, that is too narrow. They are all of that, being raucously, brutally funny. But in a general important way they are about unexamined lives. The failure to examine is not necessarily anyone's in the plays, but ours. From our ordinary safe, hermetic distance these lives can't help but appear sinister, evil, blackly comic, god-awful pitiful. Walker's putrid motel room is a kind of examination room. Confinement keeps distractions to a bare minimum. He's a good playwright, and when he's done, these characters are in the room under the pitiless theatrical glare, but so are we. Or better, we now know something we didn't know before, and it changes them in us and very possibly us, too.
In "Problem Child," a young woman makes a fat target for scorn (hooker, drug addict, drinker, deadbeat, mother trying to reclaim a child taken away by social welfare). She comes to the front of the stage after all the chaos has subsided behind her and delivers an epilogue aimed directly at our smug centers. One thing she says is, "I'm slipping into a sadness and anger so deep I'll never get out," and then outlines the uncontrollable impulses this generates, and you know you are watching next week's sordid headlines.
The plays have a violent, comical, sexual energy. It's made all the more uproarious by being crammed into this tiny, shabby room. They rock in and rock out. Denise, the girl above, played by Kristen Thomson, and her ex-con husband, R.J. (played by Shawn Doyle), get into frenetic pawing and smacking bouts when the pressures tear them up. In "Adult Entertainment" two cops, a legal-aid lawyer and the wife of one cop produce a crackling electric violence that never materializes, but keeps you wary in your seat, like thunder without the lightning.
Almost all of it has a riveting intensity. The cops' stuff in "Adult Entertainment" is like squeezing "NYPD Blue" into one little space without the look-aways to commercials and cutaways to other scene-stories. "Problem Child" may be a bit less successful because the writing leans too hard on building a parallel between rotten-spirited TV talk shows and the life this couple is stuck in.
R.J. and Denise wait for a social worker, Helen (played by Nola Augustson), to make up her mind whether to return their child from foster care or not. The depth of Denise's desperation only slowly becomes clear. She gets a gun to use on Helen. Before she can do anything, Helen cuts her hand in the bathroom, loses blood, falls, smacks her head on the toilet and dies. Denise and Phillie (that's the motel handyman, played by James Kidnie) drag Helen around back and bury her in the mud. The denouement of this little episode, though, is a glorious comic riff.
Intermediate string overflow Cannot justify line
Something behind it all is very angry, like Denise's anger. It says, you may think you know Denise, but you don't. The way the play is written, and performed, your predatory knowingness about Denise slips little by little until the very end, when her epilogue opens the door to a Denise you may or may not want to accept, but at least you now know.
"Adult Entertainment" begins with sex. Clothes fly and two people grunt and crash to the floor. False alarm. Frost sets in, and instead they talk. Well, they deal. Jane (Karen Robinson) is a beautiful, brown-skinned, scarily smart legal-aid lawyer with an attitude and Max (Layne Coleman) is a tough, smart cop. They're trying to light an old affair. But what's really going on is, she wants a deal, he wants a deal involving her client, her client's dirtbag boyfriend, and another guy, think a rung or two lower than dirtbag.
Max has a partner, Donnie (Ron Lea), a morality squad guy into hookers, drinking in the car parked outside. Donnie's wife, Pam (Anna-Louise Richardson), turns up. Walker plays variations on this desperate quartet, leading desperately empty lives, performed with an impeccable sense of what it is to be lost in the shadows, and yet it ends with quiet, murmurred declarations of love. Deals are done, a kid dies, a cop is wounded, lives crumble, and still that cautious whisper of love ends it.
Walker is astute about the hopeless lives of his hopeless subjects. At any single moment they are sad or riotously funny. From a sanctioned viewpoint the misguided can always seem funny. Walker says, though, look closer, it may be you that's misguided.
George Walker's cycle of six plays, directed by Walker.
The first two in repertory are:
Rating:**** "Adult Entertainment" Rating:**** 1/2 Performances continue in Toron to's Factory Theatre, 125 Bath urst St. (416-504-9971).