ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS by George F. Walker (Factory/New World Stage/Luminato). At the Factory (125 Bathurst). To June 17. $24-$35. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
No one creates urban chaos like George F. Walker , and there's a moment in the second act of Escape From Happiness that takes that chaos to a wild new level. Closets, both literal and figurative, burst open. Papers and streamers fly everywhere. Secrets and lies spill out for all to see.
It's a shot of speed in a script and production that desperately needs a boost.
One of Walker's East End plays and a too-long and inferior sequel to his Better Living - with which it's running in rep - Escape shows how family matriarch Nora ( Clare Coulter ), her three very different daughters and her suddenly returned husband, Tom ( Layne Coleman ), defend themselves from outside crime.
After finding some drugs in the family basement, police carry Nora away. Maybe, thinks one of the play's swifter characters, the drugs are somehow connected to the random beating of Junior ( Brandon McGibbon ), one of the daughter's husbands, by a sleazoid father-son crime team.
Where Better Living paints a sympathetic portrait of a dysfunctional lower-middle-class family trying to improve itself, the labyrinthine plot of Escape takes on police corruption and urban renewal. It's jokier and more sitcommy than its predecessor, and thus less satisfying.
Still, there are terrific details in Ken Gass 's production. The set, with its layers of wallpaper, avocado-coloured stove and Campbell's Soup recipe booklet, communicates lots about its inhabitants, as do everyone's shoes. (This is the most effectively-shod production I've seen in years.)
The performances, perhaps because of the broadness of the writing and directing, are uneven, with Coleman disappointing in a performance that seems more Homer Simpson than homebody.
Coulter's delicate pronouncements and gestures feel authentic, and Sarah Manninen and Lisa Norton add sharpness to the daughters. Oliver Becker , who's equally adept at drama and comedy, creates a hapless two-bit criminal with total commitment, emerging as one of the show's most sympathetic characters.
But it's Irene Poole 's oldest sister, Elizabeth, who commands the stage. Using her clear, strong voice, natural authority and - to draw from another Walker title - sense of love and anger, she holds the often unruly play together.