As the Luminato Fest continues, two more George F. Walker plays open at the Factory. Escape from Happiness is the sequel to already-opened Better Living, while Tough! is another one of Walker’s East End Plays, focusing on a different group of characters. The entire play, which is only about an hour and twenty minutes long, is composed of a single scene: a confrontation between three young people in a park. Tina knows Bobby cheated on her at a party, which makes her especially mad because she’s pregnant with his child, something Bobby is about to discover. Tina brings her friend Jill along for back-up, who has a long-standing grudge against Bobby and could happily “kick him to death”.
Director Ken Gass gives us an unusual take on this simple premise by casting four multi-racial young actors in each of the roles. The actors seamlessly trade off between characters, sometimes working individually while their counterparts stand at the side-lines like supporters, sometimes getting all Greek and speaking in chorus. Despite having been written 14 years ago, Tough! feels very current and avoids the pitfalls of getting trapped in obsolete teen lingo – although there is one very amusing reference to the Beverly Hills 90210 theme song that would likely go over the heads of high schoolers of today. This is a good opportunity to see some talented young performers take a new approach to a great play.
It’s pretty cool to have Escape From Happiness running in rep with Better Living, because the former picks up just shortly after where the latter left off. At the end of Better Living, psychotic patriarch Tom had been forced to leave the family at gunpoint and his wife and daughters were only just beginning to process this information. Escape From Happiness obviously begins some time later, and after a series of events that are never entirely explained. Youngest daughter Gail is now married to her loser-boyfriend Junior and they have a baby. Somehow, Tom has managed to worm his way back into the family home, although older daughters Marianne and Elizabeth refuse to even be in the same room as him. Mother Nora appears to have abandoned her plans for expanding the house’s basement, and she is also unaware of the illegal wheelings and dealings Tom and Junior have been getting up to, which quickly bring the family under suspicion of police officers Mike and Dian.
For the most part, the cast is fantastic. Clare Coulter reprises her role of the clueless Nora with inimitable aplomb and Irene Poole’s Elizabeth is an absolute force of nature – and she gets more to do in this installment. What are confusing are the casting discrepancies between Better Living and Escape From Happiness. Oliver Becker, who played Nora’s brother Jack in Better Living, returns in Escape From Happiness as another character: sewer-dwelling pornographer Rolly. But what is really confusing is that Ron White, who played Tom in Better Living with terrifying intensity and control plays Mike in Escape From Happiness, while erstwhile Passe Muraille artistic director Layne Coleman plays Tom. Why this discrepancy? Yes, Coleman portrayed Tom in the Factory production last season, but other cast changes were made, and as an audience member, it’s downright confusing to see him in the role (which he plays entirely differently) especially when Ron White is in the play as someone else.
Casting confusion aside, this is a great production of the play, and it’s definitely worth catching along with the other parts of The Walker Project. There’s an hilarious biting quality to Walker’s writing that’s hard to find anywhere else.
Previously: Luminato(ist),This is Walkerland