Stage Left Theatre

at American Blues Theater

“Requited love is a short circuit,” Samuel Beckett once observed, meaning among other things that satisfied lovers make awful characters. The same is true of fictional families: the happier they are, the more boring they are. But a truly flipped-out crowd, like the Tyrones of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night or the Chandebise household of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, is endlessly fascinating.

The family at the center of George F. Walker’s dark comic farce Escape From Happiness is sick–and entertaining. Headed by a mother who maintains only the most tenuous connection to reality, the family consists of three daughters who display a panoply of neuroses and a chronically ill old man who may or may not be their father. When the youngest daughter’s husband is beaten up by local thugs, the family is thrown into a crisis.

This may not sound like the most promising trigger for a farce, but then Joe Orton did change the genre forever in the 1960s, turning it from a form that merely poked fun at middle-class foibles to one that–like satire before it–slashed everyone’s sacred cows to ribbons. Walker in Escape From Happiness very much takes after Orton, skewering everyone: meddlesome police, pushy lawyers, touchy-feely therapy addicts. Unlike Orton, however, Walker has not quite mastered the art of advancing the plot and winning laughs at the same time. And when he stops his story, he piles one-liner upon one-liner, squeezing every last possible laugh out of a comic premise.

This is especially true of a bit in which the flaky middle sister, Mary Ann (brilliantly played by Marguerite Hammersley), at her therapist’s bidding tells her older sister, Elizabeth, that she should not be ashamed of being a lesbian and should come out of the closet. The joke is that Elizabeth is absolutely reconciled to her sexual orientation, and so is everyone else in the family. But as he does in so many other instances in the play, Walker brings the joke back several times, and each time to diminishing effect. It almost seems Walker jokes so much because he doesn’t trust audiences to fully appreciate the play’s smarter, subtler points. (And Escape From Happiness does contain some marvelous quiet moments, including a second-act speech in which the ditsy mom proves she’s on the ball after all.)

This obsessive jokiness is the main reason that Walker’s farce ultimately overstays its welcome despite the presence of ten interesting, multifaceted comic characters, including a wonderfully bumbling father-and-son thug team. Under most circumstances, a three-act three-and-a-half-hour comedy would be hard to take, but it’s especially hard to concentrate on a play that virtually begs to be edited to a leaner, funnier 150 minutes.

Not that Walker alone is to blame for this production. On opening night, director Drew Martin’s cast still did not seem entirely settled into their roles, as evidenced by the occasional uncertain line deliveries and an unfortunate tendency to belabor the physical comedy, performing it either too frenetically or with the painful slowness of a clumsy eight-year-old learning the box step. What makes these rough spots especially exasperating is the fact that some of the physical comedy is performed with a finesse Chaplin would have envied: this seems an underrehearsed cast, not a bad one.

There are lots of wonderful performances by this non-Equity ensemble. Amelia Barrett, who always shone in Cactus Theatre’s hyperrealistic productions, proves herself here to be a powerful, very funny comic actress. Ann James, so marvelous last winter as June Cleaver in As the Beaver, excels in yet another passive-aggressive mom role. And Kris Edlund is delightful as the spunky, tough-minded youngest sister, the only more or less sane character in the bunch.

But as happens far too often in Chicago these days, a strong ensemble can’t make up for a weak play. And especially when the play clearly needed another week of rehearsals.