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In 1989, having seen three of George F. Walker’s comedies, I hazarded a guess that Canada’s most successful playwright was “something less than a deep thinker.” Nothing about his spoof-noir playfulness in Filthy Rich, verbal swashbuckling in Zastrozzi, or Chekhov-inspired, vodka-enhanced philosophizing in Nothing Sacred hinted at much more than cleverness and a gift for stylistic mimicry.
Having now added another three plays, including Round House Theater’s current laff riot, Escape From Happiness, to my personal Walkerthon, I’m prepared to munch on a little crow. The man’s comedies—at least the ones that have shown up in Washington—have darkened in recent years, with the playwright mining fresh veins of social criticism that not only lend an edge to the laughter he’s provoking, but also illuminate his earlier work in retrospect.
It helps that, except for the inept mounting of Nothing Sacred six years ago at Arena Stage, all of Walker’s plays have had their D.C.-area premieres under one roof. Round House audiences and creative personnel have developed an affinity for the Canadian dramatist not unlike that of their Signature Theater counterparts for Stephen Sondheim. And the dividends their familiarity pays in added resonance is becoming substantial.
Certainly Escape From Happiness—a crime mystery about hilariously dysfunctional family members who pull together to protect themselves from an outside threat—benefits from the echoes it conjures of its four Round House predecessors. All have used illegal activities as a jumping-off point: Filthy Rich (1987) focusing on detectives whose sleuthing uncovers “metaphysical angst and existential nausea”; Zastrozzi (1988) on a medieval master criminal attempting to take over Europe; Love and Anger (1991) on a crazed lawyer’s quixotic battles against corporate greed; and Criminals in Love (1993) on a schizoid revolutionary’s schemes to swipe food from the Salvation Army.
This last play even shares some characters with Escape. Junior, a dopey teen ne’er-do-well, ended Criminals with his head nestled under his girlfriend Gail’s sweater, seemingly content to stay there indefinitely. The opening image in Escape suggests that he should have. As the lights come up, he’s lying bloodied on a kitchen floor with Gail (now his wife) standing over him begging that he show signs of life. This being a Walker comedy, patrons can rest assured he’ll soon be dancing a groggy jig, but the graphic opening is a directorial declaration of sorts: Where the author’s previous plays all seemed to be taking place in an absurdist world where no one could ever be seriously hurt, this one is set in a world where actions have consequences and dangers are real.
Which is not to suggest that the evening’s quotient of fun is in any way diminished. Junior (Steve Hadnagy looking and sounding uncannily like Keanu Reeves) has been beaten up by neighborhood thugs with whom he may have a business relationship. As the police descend asking insinuating questions that sound like accusations, practical Gail (Elizabeth Kitsos) and her more-than-mildly-addled mother Nora (Nancy Robinette) set about pulling the family wagons into a circle. Calls go out to Nora’s other daughters—manic housewife Mary Ann (Sarah Marshall) and all-business legal-eagle Elizabeth (Jane Beard)—who agree to come over if their father (Tom Quinn) is kept upstairs. Unlike their mom (who has been pretending for more than a decade that her husband is a complete stranger who happens to be living in her house), they have trouble coping when inside the old homestead. Elizabeth can work wonders in court and Mary Ann’s a whiz in the kitchen, but together under one roof they’re a mess.
A spectacular one. In Daniel DeRaey’s antic, wildly physical production, each of the family’s women gets an opportunity to self-destruct on stage. Mary Ann seems already to be going to pieces as she arrives on the scene, her sentences splintering into fragments animated by entirely separate emotions. Mary Ann is in therapy, and if she’s truly “at a crossroads” as she keeps saying, Marshall manages to suggest that it marks the intersection of at least a dozen psychic superhighways. You can almost hear the grinding of mental gears as she frosts a chocolate cake while burbling about the need to make a “mythic apology for something the family doesn’t know it did.” Or when she’s outing Elizabeth with much psychobabble about hard choices in one breath, and airily contemplating becoming a lesbian in the next.
Elizabeth’s meltdown also involves food, though her approach isn’t to serve it, but to fling it at all comers. Beard is so controlled for so long as the authoritative attorney that when she finally explodes, sending crackers and marshmallows flying, the rest of her family instinctively dives under the kitchen table for protection.
Kitsos’ Gail is more reserved, but she too has manic moments, especially when the others temporarily forget that her dim bulb of a husband may be in mortal danger. And hovering over all of them like a nerve-damaged mother hen is Robinette’s Nora, a woman who calculatedly refuses to deal with the world on any but her own terms. Answering questions from the peculiarly mismatched, mutually antagonistic police detectives played by Dori Legg and Marty Lodge, she redefines terms and requests clarification so often that she ends up controlling the discussion entirely. Men haven’t got a prayer of standing up to these women, and most don’t try. When one does—say, Mitchell Patrick’s inept pornographer (don’t ask what he’s doing on the premises)—he’s apt to end up trussed up, stressed out, and whimpering.
All this activity, oddly enough, is in the service of a message that might best be termed a call for contemporary quietude. Societal abuses, police malfeasance, and rampant criminality in the basement notwithstanding, Escape From Happiness is essentially about the resilience of family. Walker hasn’t quite found a way to wrap up his play neatly—authoritative endings always seem to elude him—but he manages to make an effective case for the notion that even in the most dysfunctional of homes, redemptive power can be found in the strength of family ties that blind.
“We’re running away from happiness,” says Nora philosophically, pegging not just her family’s situation, but that of 20th-century humankind. “We think we need to struggle and suffer and work really hard,” she continues, and as a faraway look comes into her eye, the whole Round House audience nods in agreement, “before we can just stay still and let happiness catch up and surround us.”