The last scene in prolific Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s new play “Heaven,” commissioned by and first seen at Toronto’s Canadian Stage Co. in January, is set in a celestial comedy club at which dead Irish-Catholic human rights lawyer James Joyce Milliken roams the aisles, mike in hand, as the evening’s standup comic. “God thinks I’m funny,” he says. But a more accurate description would be deeply, cynically angry — at the entire rotten world. Walker’s play attempts to address various big issues, among them bigotry and the concept of heaven itself. But the play teeters dangerously on the brink of the ridiculous as it pushes ever harder to be tough, vicious and nasty.
“Heaven” isn’t a realistic play. At the end of the first act, Milliken’s murdered Jewish wife descends from above to beat him up, for instance. But playwright, director, cast and designers never manage to hit quite the right note of truthful unreality.
Ultimately, the most believable character onstage ends up being Sissy (Jane Cho), a homeless 16-year-old heroin addict who spends her time learning how to ride a unicycle, juggle and walk on stilts in order to earn a living as a street entertainer. Cho has not only developed her necessary special skills well, but also brings empathy and sympathy to her role.
The rest of the cast works hard and is clearly talented. But too often their roles, situations and dialogue defeat them, starting with the play’s opening scene, in which Karl (Robert Clohessy), an undercover cop, confronts lawyer James (Michael O’Keefe) and accuses him of having killed his partner. Seems that Karl’s partner shot and killed a black man, and James won the case against him that resulted in him losing his badge and committing suicide.
Karl decides to become a serial killer and do away with the lowlifes in his area in order to teach James a lesson. He fatally shoots Sissy’s young black boyfriend Derek (Leslie Elliard); strangles James’ pregnant wife, Judy (Kate Levy); and then shoots James. Sissy then stabs Karl to death. As might be guessed, the play goes too far, even for black comedy.
It doesn’t help that the characters all speak in the same voice. The dialogue for James, Karl and Judy is almost interchangeable. That’s a shame, because the actors work hard to bring their characters to life, without quite succeeding. Ditto the role of David Olshen (Joseph Urla), the rabbi who falls in love with James’ wife.
Set designer Takeshi Kata has brilliantly created an utterly bleak and joyless milieu, a tiny, grubby urban park sandwiched between empty buildings under demolition. It’s probably too strictly realistic, as is Evan Yionoulis’ direction and too much of the acting.
But the play itself is the basic problem. As James (and, presumably, Walker) fervently believes, “Heaven is crap.” But the point of Walker’s play is never clearly or thoughtfully made.