On the small round stage fenced in by rings of pokey little chairs, dimly lit and sparsely decorated, Tuesday Night Cafe’s (TNC) Suburban Motel: Problem Child & Criminal Genius is all fireworks. We get a roaring drunk hotel manager; an ex-con prone to throwing tantrums about what he sees on daytime talk shows; a histrionic, red-faced female thug who hurls abuse like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas; and a greasy small-time crook who talks with the speed and precision of a careening bob-sled. Student director Johanu Botha culled his wild, sometimes jarring, “double feature” from a string of six short plays, collectively called Suburban Motel by the Canadian playright George F. Walker. Both parts of the double feature take place in the same motel room, and orbit around the motel’s manager Phillie (Cory Lipman).
The first, Problem Child, seems unclear as to what it wants to be. The story of RJ (Adam Finchler) and his alcoholic partner Denise (Rachael Benjamin) trying to get their baby back from a priggish social worker is utterly sincere to the point of hyper-realism. Denise, for example, with her perfect valley girl cadences, is played with eerie accuracy by Benjamin. Anyone who has seen a very depressed and very drunk person clamoring for attention will cringe at Benjamin’s performance.
Parts of the play, in fact, are almost aggressively unlyrical, gritty to a fault. Some of the time it doesn’t feel like Benjamin, for example, is acting at all: she delivers lines in the mushy, mundane way people speak on a daily basis. This was a deliberate aesthetic. But realism doesn’t have to preclude performance, as it sometimes seems to do in the play. On the other hand, the play flies into the realm of the absurd too often for a work so rooted in the soot and sorrow of post-industrial hardship. At one point, Denise for-gets that RJ’s mother is dead. It’s a detail that is just slightly, but notice-ably off.
This dissonance can be effective. Using a boring suburban setting as a straight man for lunacy is an age-old formula – think of the plain normalcy and through-the-roof hijinks of Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Fargo. But when Botha told me in the lobby of the Islamic Studies building before the play that he had chosen the grimmest and funniest of Walker’s six shorttakes, he might have added that he chose to stuff both tones into each play.
The second play of the double-feature, Criminal Genius, suf-fers from the same odd mixture of madcap and quiet misery. A father-son combo of cheap crooks – Rolly (Teis Jorgensen) and Stevie (Marko Djurdjic) – fail at their assigned task of burning down a building owned by a local crime boss. They are incessantly scolded for their failure by their bull-doggish arsonist in-chief, Shirley (Tara Richter Smith). Like Problem Child, Criminal Genius ends with a completely ludicrous and not-to-be-divulged fit of violence.
If in Problem Child RJ laments the world’s lack of justice, Rolly’s gripe here is plain bad luck: the play unfolds as a comedy of errors, as the hapless criminals stumble into worse and worse predicaments. Shirley has some great lines of raw sarcasm and vitriol (mostly aimed at her foil Rolly) and in both plays, Phillie is brilliant as a motel manager ever engaged in a self-imposed game of Edward Forty-Hands (Lipman’s use of the set’s doorframes to prop up his drunk body is almost balletic). There may even be too much humour, or too much attempted humour, in Criminal Genius. Sometimes, as the excellent cast one-up’s each other with ever louder and more outrageous outbursts, the significance of what the actors are saying gets drowned out.
Suburban Motel suffers from a kind of schizophrenia: it is at once a brooding, heavy-breathing drama and, before you know it, floats off into dizzy, violent farce. Which is not to say the play falls apart: both of its split personalities are charming in their way. The cast is uniformly talented, and Finchler and Smith give especially smart performances. But they’re battling their material: the sincere and the absurd sit so uneasily, one beside the other, in the play. No amount of skill on the actors’ or director’s part can reconcile this fact.