Problem Play
Problem Child. By George F. Walker. Directed by John Warren. Starring Barry Levine, Allyson Kulavis, Stephen Pawley, and Christina Augello. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), through June 26. Call 673-3847.

Writing about Problem Child is problematic: How do I say exactly what's wrong with a show that turns on a very strange and unlikely (and funny) event without giving the event itself away? If the script were an excellent piece of writing I could just hand out vague praises and sign off, because the rest of the production is good. But the script has definite and interesting problems, so I'm warning everyone now that I may not be able to discuss them without ruining the plot.

George F. Walker, Canadian author of Nothing Sacred, has written a six-part cycle of plays called Suburban Motel, with every play set in the same dingy motel room. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to present unconnected stories of everyday people in a Ray Carver kind of setting. Problem Child is about a broke and drug-addicted young couple who've lost their daughter to a foster family. They're waiting in the motel room, full of hope, to hear their social worker declare them fit to take their daughter home. But the social worker doesn't oblige. She comes to the motel and tells them the process isn't that far along. Immediately we have a plot problem: Why, if the process still needs time, have the parents moved into the motel at all? Why didn't they stay where they were? The only answer is: because Denise (the mother) is so desperate. Denise's desperation fuels Problem Child the way jealousy fuels a soap opera, and most of the lurid events that unfold have a soap-opera gloss.

John Sowle has built the vividly realistic set, with ugly bedspread and plastic-wrapped lampshades, dull curtains and droning TV chatter. Allyson Kulavis plays a good deadbeat mom, in torn jeans, a tight tank top, and a gray cotton sweater. She finds a simple, appealing persona for Denise and only slips out of it on the awkward lines, the evidences of writerly effort. Barry Levine's R.J. (the father) feels a little willed, partly because he's obsessed with trash TV to an extent that stops being quite so funny after the first hour. But Stephen Pawley's Phillie Phillips, the drunken, simple-minded caretaker who gets involved in Denise's plot, is a stroke of brilliance. He philosophizes and complains in a monotone voice full of muted rage, and gives fresh life to lines that on the page aren't obviously strong. "The bathroom's spotless, NOT THAT I GIVE A SHIT," he hollers; and, later, while vacuuming: "I can't get into that shit, the haves and the have-nots, the fuckers and the fuckees -- no, I can't get into that shit. ... Let me just suck up what little dirt I can here."

You have to see it to really appreciate it.
Unfortunately, poor old Phillie gets into the master-victim theme so often that it starts to feel forced. And R.J. points out the same theme every time Jenny Jones or Ricki Lake drags some unwilling schmuck in front of the cameras for her audience to jeer at. Denise complains about it to Helen, the social worker; presumably this sense of injustice (combined with her desperation) is the reason she almost kills Helen, wrecking all hope of retrieving her child. It's a good theme, but it doesn't need to be ridden so hard, and Helen's near-death has such an unlikeliness about it that enjoying the humor is a strain. Without it, of course, there would be no play; and after it Christina Augello's performance as Helen vastly improves, from solid but slightly stiff to hilariously faux-polite and outraged. But the event creates a disconnect between Walker's crushing realism and his flights of imagination. It's a compromise solution to a number of plot problems, which places Problem Child in a purgatory between absurdism and simple awkward writing.

There. Nothing given away.
The other problem with Walker's script is that time freezes near the end, so Denise can turn to give the audience a summary of her next few months. It's like those wrap-ups at the end of a movie that scroll up the screen to let you know what happens to all the characters, only placed in one of the actors' mouths. These tweakings of convention should be David Lynch-like -- realism fused into something else -- and they might work if they had dramatic purpose; but they don't. They just make the writer's job easier, and diminish the play.

-- Michael Scott Moore

All Dolled Up
Cid Pearlman and Nesting Dolls. Text by Michelle Murphy. Original music by Erling Wold, vocals by Laurie Amat, conducted by Deirdre McClure. At ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., June 10-13.

There was plenty to like about Cid Pearlman's farewell show at ODC, the climax of a yearlong collaboration with composer Erling Wold and poet Michelle Murphy, but there was something plainly lacking, too: verve. Despite Wold's fascinating compositions and Murphy's often engaging text, it was a sleepy, even sluggish program that fell short of its ambitious mark.

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