REVIEW: Escape from Happiness (Infamous Commonwealth)

Uneven production still allows for entertaining conclusion

 

Infamous Commonwealth Escape for Happiness Press Photo 2

   
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
   
Escape From Happiness
   
Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Genevieve Thompson
at the
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I am not an elderly person. But I’m not completely cool with starting an almost 3-hour show at 8:30, which is the case with Infamous Commonwealth’s Escape from Happiness by Canadian George F. Walker. The major problem with that almost 3-hour show is that it drags, so when I walked at around 11:20 it felt like it was much later.

Starting-time aside, the production isn’t without merit. Although the laughs dip, Walker’s black comedy has some extremely funny moments. The play throws the audience into the thickets of a very dysfunctional family, but one where all the progeny visit often. Escape from happiness posterEveryone, from mom to dad to the trio of sisters, have their little neuroses and quirks, a few worse than others. A product of the early-90’s obsession with petty crime, slacker philosophy, and guns, Escape from Happiness is a chapter in a cycle set in Walker’s old neighborhood in Toronto. There are several untangled knots tied in the plot that make it feel like a link in a chain instead of its own complete whole. There’s an occasional focus on vigilantism and mention of how awful the surrounding neighborhood is, but those points don’t mesh well with the rest of the familial-centered story. Walker stretches his characters and world too far and too thinly for us to really clamp onto any one character. The focus moves from sister to sister without choosing a protagonist. Reeling, complicated family dramas can be brilliant (August: Osage County, anyone?), but Walker just can’t keep our interest going for all his characters throughout the course of the play.

The mission of Infamous Commonwealth is to visibly envelope themselves in one theme each season. The concentration this year is redemption, which is a pretty obvious theme in the play, directed by Genevieve Thompson. Tom (Jim Farrell), the father, is infested with mental illness and shunned and despised by over half his immediate family. The problem is that his past sins didn’t seem worthy of such acidic hate, a failing of writing and direction. Mom (Barbara Anderson) seems to live in willful obliviousness to everything, and the three sisters pick sides and pick on each other. All of the in-fighting is framed within a story about small-time dealers and crooked cops, an external disturbance which feels forced.

The cast has a hard time connecting and building off of each other. Anderson, especially, feels fundamentally false, going through rehearsed motions instead of breathing life into the character. She plays at the crazy and ends up feeling safe. She’s joined by several supporting cast members, like Anne Sheridan Smith and Joe Ciresi, who don’t listen to the other actors on-stage.

Infamous Commonwealths Escape for Happiness Press Photo

As the youngest sister and the focus of the first chunk of the story, Whitney Hayes is fine. The character just becomes increasingly boring and unimportant, and Hayes has much less to do after intermission. The real glue that keeps this show together is Nancy Friedrich as the clingy middle sister, Mary Ann. She has a schizophrenic monologue in the middle of the play that is the funniest thing in the production. She’s mousey and prone to rambling, nailing Walker’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, she functions as a bit part for most of the production. As her sister Elizabeth, Jennifer Mathews takes over for the last half of the play and handles it pretty well, although the character isn’t nearly as funny as Mary Ann. Jim Farrell and the hapless Stephen Dunn are also noteworthy, adding their own comic touches when they can.

Thompson’s production, maybe because of Infamous Commonwealth’s love of themes, sheds some humor in order to clarify the message. And Walker’s writing is dense and unevenly paced. However, the humor blasts through in the second act, and the cast comes together to make it work. Comedies, even black comedies, need to roll along at a quick clip, and this Escape from Happiness lumbers under its own weight.

  
   
Rating: ★★
    
      

Extra Credit

           
Escape From Happiness cast1 Escape From Happiness cast2 Escape From Happiness cast3 Escape From Happiness cast4 Escape From Happiness cast5

Featuring: Barbara Anderson, Josh Atkins*, Joe Ciresi*, Stephen Dunn*, Jim Farrell, Nancy Friedrich*, Whitney Hayes*, Chris Maher *, Jennifer Mathews* and Anne Sheridan Smith.           *denotes company member

West Stage of the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street.  Running July 10 thru August 8;  Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:30pm