KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 19, 1999
As a constant reminder, I have a magnet on my refrigerator that says: “90 percent of all families are dysfunctional; the other 10 percent are in denial.” It must’ve been written by someone from the Fritz Theater. That organization has featured more dysfunctional families than the House of Atreus, AKA the Oedipus connection. But theirs was a tragic lineage; the Fritz likes its families bleakly, blackly comic. The current resident fits the bill. “Escape from Happiness” is a manic, maniacal ménage.
Some consider playwright George F. Walker to be Canada’s answer to Nicky Silver or Joe Orton, the American and English purveyors of wacko relations in weirdo situations. But this play feels like a wannabe, though all the right ingredients are there — starting with a big warped branch of a twisted family tree.
Here we have the nutty Quinn family: Tom, who deserted his loved ones ten years ago, after trying to burn the house down with them in it; Nora, who has drifted schizophrenically into some parallel universe; and their three darling daughters: the angry lawyer Elizabeth, who crusades against police brutality and defends the family by torturing anyone who threatens it; the ditsy Mary Ann, who’s abandoning her husband and child because she’s arrived, for the umpteenth time, at a critical “crossroads” in her life; and Gail, who’s tough, sensible, a little high-strung, and totally devoted to Junior, her affable, somewhat dim lawbreaker of a husband.
As the play opens, we see Junior sprawled on the floor of Nora’s ramshackle kitchen, battered and bleeding. His batty mother-in-law encourages him to get up and dance to stay alive. Soon, a cop duo enters to investigate. They’re followed by a pair of bungling professional criminals — a goofball father and son team who may be linked to a bag of dope stashed in the basement. Meanwhile, there’s a slightly demented invalid living upstairs, who nattering Nora treats like a stranger, though he has the identical name and appearance of her long-lost husband.
So, basically, this is a who-cares-who-dunnit crime caper, a loopy family love-fest, and a raging romp against abusive parents, hostage-takers, vigilantes, organized crime and police corruption. There’s just too much on Walker’s chipped little plate. But the plucky Fritz producing director Karin Williams digs in with relish nonetheless. She savors every warped morsel of Walker’s play, seasoning it with a delicious ensemble cast, featuring especially good performances by Bonnie Stone, DeNae Winesette, Jessica Drizd, Dale Morris, Sean Quinn, Mark Petrich and Dave Lamb. All the characters are kinda off-the-wall, but I liked the sibs best when they were rolling on the floor, screaming, cursing and tearing each other’s hair out. Having two sisters of my own, that was one scene I could really relate to. And it looked great in David Weiner’s dilapidated set, perhaps the most detailed ever at the Fritz.
So, it’s all there: quirky characters, hairpin plot-turns, filial and familial conflict. It should be a recipe for success. But in this kitchen, both the play and the production are trying too hard to whip up the audience. What starts out as a feather-light soufflé (laced with arsenic), ends up falling flat, as contrived as a saccharine sitcom.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.