Despite a penchant for filling his plays with the socially downtrodden and alienated, George F. Walker has avoided being pinned down as a political playwright and, mostly, avoided putting overt political statements in the mouths of his characters. He prefers, instead, to let his zany, marginalized creations make their point in offbeat ways and has said that his characters and plays have their own voice, for which he then has to find a structure.
In “Risk Everything,” the last of six plays in his cycle titled “Suburban Motel,” it’s as if his characters have run out of things to say, and so their “structure” is essentially pure farce.
Unlike the first play in the cycle, “Problem Child,” in which we meet two of the four characters for the first time, style substitutes for depth. Back then ex-druggie mom Denise (Kristen Thomson) and her TV-addicted hubby R.J. (Tom Barnett) were trying to turn their lives around, and Denise’s final monologue was an exquisite denunciation of the child agencies that occasionally do more harm than good in trying to protect their clients.
This time Denise and R.J. seem to exist merely to drive the action forward, and even a subtext about what the poor need to do to get ahead and be treated fairly by the rest of society doesn’t hold much water against a nonsensical plot about Denise’s larger-than-life, Bourbon-swilling mother Carol (Nancy Beatty), who tries to con a seriously dangerous criminal out of a large sum of money, and brain-dead Michael (John Ralston), a porno director from an earlier “Suburban Motel” play, “Featuring Loretta.”
The title is appropriate: In ending his cycle with “Risk Everything,” Walker has indeed risked everything, and up against “The End of Civilization,” the fourth play in the cycle, it emerges as a minor work, whereas “Civilization” is perhaps the best play of Walker’s career. In it, for the first time, Walker creates middle-class characters who jab a finger directly at the evils of galloping capitalism and the increasingly alienated society it creates. Or, in the words of one character, at “a bunch of greedy pricks who can’t put a lid on their greed.”
Lily (Brenda Bazinet) and Henry (Michael Healey) have had a typical marriage, with the big house and two kids. But a couple of years ago Henry was laid off, and he has not been able to find a job; now, in desperation, the couple has checked into a seedy motel room on the outskirts of a new town (all six plays take place in the same room), while Henry makes a last-ditch effort to save his marriage and mortgage.
In a series of cleverly constructed flashbacks and flashforwards, Walker gradually reveals the true cost of Henry’s unemployment, which has nothing to do with money and lifestyle. For Henry it’s the absence of “getting up in the morning and doing work that’s respected.” Lily, on the other hand, sees her middle-class status as a lifeline to self-respect. Their mutual search eventually drives Henry over the edge and leads Lily into prostitution.
As the cauldron of their frustrations erupts, three other characters come on the scene, a couple of cops looking for a serial killer (Layne Coleman and Daniel Kash) and a hooker (Fiona Highet), who introduces Lily to her way of life. But it is the central relationship between Henry and Lily that drives the play forward to its haunting conclusion, expressed by Walker in bleak terms when he has a character remark: “If the world is so sick that it creates these people , then the world deserves them.”
There are some laughs here, but the dark comedy that sometimes pushes Walker’s plays into the realm of absurdity is noticeably missing. And though the writing often feels as instinctive as he claims it to be, “Civilization” seems torn from a deeper place, from past the gut and out of the very depths of his soul.