Escape from Happiness

Wilma Theater, 2030 Sansom St., through June 16, 963-0345.

Escape from Happiness took me completely by surprise. I must confess that I haven't often liked the black comedies at the Wilma directed by Jiri Zizka (the surrealistic The Virgin Molly or the Joe Orton farces Loot and What the Butler Saw spring to mind). I've found these productions to be comically overstuffed, too labored in their forced jollity, too in-your-face in the blackness of the black comedy, too aggressive and just too damned LOUD for the Wilma's tiny Sansom Street space.

And here, in the opening moments of George F. Walker's 1992 comedy, were all the telltale signs of a Jiri Zizka black comedy. We're in the kitchen/family room of a house in a bad part of town (with cabinets and kitchen appliances, in David P. Gordon's set, of a deliciously nauseating combination of the worst 1960s colors). Junior (Michael Burnet) is on the kitchen floor covered in blood, going into shock. His wife Gail (Deborah Seif) is trying to help him. Her mother Nora (Helen-Jean Arthur), holding Gail's newborn in her arms, talks, and talks, and talks, quibbling about calling 911, about how injured Junior really is, about Gail's relationship with her and with her sisters. Finally, in a mind-fucking guilt trip of monstrous proportions, Nora talks Junior to his feet and out the door into the ambulance that has just arrived.

I don't remember laughing so hard in the theater. Certainly not at a black comedy at the Wilma.

So what was different here? Much of the rest of the first act helped me figure this out. It wasn't just how wacky all the characters turn out to be. Nora, a non-stop yacker, evidently has been in and out of institutions. The eldest adult daughter Elizabeth (Janis Dardaris) is a high-powered attorney with a chip on her shoulder as large as Toronto. The middle sister Mary Ann (Jennifer Childs), when she isn't compulsively apologizing, or baking cakes as a way of apologizing, confronts her sisters with psycho-babble tools from her therapy sessions.

It wasn't just how dysfunctional the larger family turns out to be: the father (William Wise) -- who had abused them all, tried to burn the house down, and then abandoned them decades before -- has returned and is living in a semi-catatonic state upstairs. Gail has forgiven him and cooks soup for him; Mary Ann is still terrified of him; Elizabeth still detests him; and Nora has convinced herself that her husband has died, and that a total stranger, looking just like him, has wandered into their house and is living upstairs.

It certainly wasn't the plot, which has something to do with the deterioration of the neighborhood, police corruption,low-level semi-organized crime, two detectives (Alix D. Smith and Paul Meshejian) who are as dysfunctional in their partnership as the family, and a (needless to say, dysfunctional) father-and-son team of local thugs (Tom McCarthy and Cory Einbinder).

No. The effectiveness of the comedy was, I now think, due to the sense, created by the playwright and, triumphantly, by the actors, that these characters have had an ongoing life and relationship with one another before the play begins. (In fact, these characters do have a life before the play begins: Escape from Happiness is the fourth of a series of plays by Walker with largely the same characters.)

We don't need a plot to see this in action. In fact, when the three sisters and their mother sit around their kitchen -- Mary Ann outing Elizabeth as a lesbian, Nora weaving elaborate guilt trips about motherhood, or Elizabeth frantically searching for some household product that can give her a quick high -- plot doesn't matter at all. When Mary Ann and Gail and Nora finally wrestle Elizabeth to the floor, we know that they, if not we, have been there before. And it's a joy to watch them at it.

And it's a joy to watch these actors at work, particularly Janis Dardaris, who adds another portrait to her gallery of appearances this year after her stunning performance in Quartet at the Wilma only a few months ago; and Jennifer Childs, who, in showing us Mary Ann's fears, insecurities and arrogance, her compulsive combination of peevishness and ingratiation, and her essential cluelessness, is simply brilliant.

What keeps Escape from Happiness from being thoroughly satisfactory is that, late in the second act, the playwright decides that the plot is important after all. And so the play limps on for close to three hours, getting crazier and less comprehensible as it goes along, and pushing Zizka to use a few of his high-decibel-level black-comedy tricks. And it even begins to get sentimental on us, as the characters pause to define family, loyalty and (a word they usually gulp before saying, but say nonetheless) love.

Forget the sentiment. Forget the plot. Go see Escape from Happiness for the acting.

-- Cary M. Mazer