- by George F. Walker
review in the SF Weekly by Michael Scott Moore
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- Writing about Problem Child is problematic: How do I say exactly whats
wrong with a show that turns on a very strange and unlikely (and funny)
event without giving the event itself away? If the script were an excellent
piece of writing I could just hand out vague praises and sign off, because
the rest of the production is good. But the script has definite and
interesting problems, so Im warning everyone now that I may not be
to discuss them without ruining the plot.
- George F. Walker, Canadian author of Nothing Sacred, has written a
six-part cycle of plays called Suburban Motel, with every play set in the
same dingy motel room. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to present
unconnected stories of everyday people in a Ray Carver kind of setting.
Problem Child is about a broke and drug-addicted young couple whove
lost their daughter to a foster family. Theyre waiting in the motel
full of hope, to hear their social worker declare them fit to take their
daughter home. But the social worker doesnt oblige. She comes to
motel and tells them the process isnt that far along. Immediately
a plot problem: Why, if the process still needs time, have the parents
moved into the motel at all? Why didnt they stay where they were?
only answer is: because Denise (the mother) is so desperate. Denises
desperation fuels Problem Child the way jealousy fuels a soap opera, and
most of the lurid events that unfold have a soap-opera gloss.
- John Sowle has built the vividly realistic set, with ugly bedspread
plastic-wrapped lampshades, dull curtains and droning TV chatter. Allyson
Kulavis plays a good deadbeat mom, in torn jeans, a tight tank top, and
gray cotton sweater. She finds a simple, appealing persona for Denise and
only slips out of it on the awkward lines, the evidences of writerly effort.
Barry Levines R.J. (the father) feels a little willed, partly because
obsessed with trash TV to an extent that stops being quite so funny after
the first hour. But Stephen Pawleys Phillie Phillips, the drunken,
simple-minded caretaker who gets involved in Denises plot, is a stroke
brilliance. He philosophizes and complains in a monotone voice full of
muted rage, and gives fresh life to lines that on the page arent
strong. The bathrooms spotless, NOT THAT I GIVE A SHIT,
hollers; and, later, while vacuuming: I cant get into that
shit, the haves
and the have-nots, the fuckers and the fuckees -- no, I cant get
shit. ... Let me just suck up what little dirt I can here.
- You have to see it to really appreciate it.
- Unfortunately, poor old Phillie gets into the master-victim theme so
that it starts to feel forced. And R.J. points out the same theme every
Jenny Jones or Ricki Lake drags some unwilling schmuck in front of the
cameras for her audience to jeer at. Denise complains about it to Helen,
the social worker; presumably this sense of injustice (combined with her
desperation) is the reason she almost kills Helen, wrecking all hope of
retrieving her child. Its a good theme, but it doesnt need
to be ridden so
hard, and Helens near-death has such an unlikeliness about it that
enjoying the humor is a strain. Without it, of course, there would be no
play; and after it Christina Augellos performance as Helen vastly
improves, from solid but slightly stiff to hilariously faux-polite and
outraged. But the event creates a disconnect between Walkers crushing
realism and his flights of imagination. Its a compromise solution
number of plot problems, which places Problem Child in a purgatory
between absurdism and simple awkward writing.
- There. Nothing given away.
- The other problem with Walkers script is that time freezes near
so Denise can turn to give the audience a summary of her next few
months. Its like those wrap-ups at the end of a movie that scroll
screen to let you know what happens to all the characters, only placed
one of the actors mouths. These tweakings of convention should be
David Lynch-like -- realism fused into something else -- and they might
work if they had dramatic purpose; but they dont. They just make
writers job easier, and diminish the play.
- Problem Child. By George F. Walker. Directed by John
Warren. Starring Barry Levine, Allyson Kulavis, Stephen
Pawley, and Christina Augello. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy
(between Mason and Taylor), through June 26. Call
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