Freeway Strangler, at Toronto’s The Box Theatre, is as Hilarious as it is Disquieting
Freeway Strangler, playing for three weeks at The Box downtown, isn’t so much a dark comedy as a horror comedy. Not that many people are getting knocked off, as the title suggests. This is a more familiar kind of horror: miserable people being horrible. Which, of course, is pretty entertaining.
Let me say it again: don’t judge this one by its title. Though not entirely devoid of freeway stranglers, Freeway Strangler deals more in existential torment than roadside homicide. It’ll satisfy anyone who prefers their black humor on the weird and fetishistic side, but it does a lot more than that.
The play follows four deeply narcissistic Hollywood actors as they struggle to project a semblance of happiness onto their own insecurities and convert their desperation into fame, which mainly amounts to clawing (and pawing) at each other and not getting anywhere.
Though the play takes its pathos from the acting world — the jealousies and ego-jousting — Freeway Strangler aims at a more universal tragedy: how our bitterness at not being loved makes it impossible to find the love we so urgently desire.
Yes, there’s a lot of unhappiness in this play, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. I actually haven’t laughed this much at a comedy in a long time. Admittedly, most of it was nervous laughter: Altair Vincent is superbly psychotic as Chris, a beautiful and erratic ingenue who can’t refrain from maliciously toying with other people. His threatening presence lends a lunatic quality to both the sexual tensions as well as the humor. It’s exhilarating.
Unlike his characters, playwright Christian Canterbury doesn’t need to prove anything and thankfully refrains from overplaying his wit, though he clearly knows how to intersperse well-timed punches into his sharp, devious dialogue. “You’re happy.” “What a horrible thing to say!”
Though Vincent shines as a sexy sociopath, the play is remarkably well balanced. Craig Thomas is profoundly watchable as a rabid puppy dog, and Vikki Velenosi and Dony Lugo are absorbing in their sisterly viciousness. Scott McCallum is goofily innocent and creepy as hell.
Some warnings are in order: Freeway Strangler is genuinely shocking in places. And for all its edginess, it does follow a fairly meandering route, not to mention a long one. In some ways, it’s surprising that the play is as entertaining as it is, given how much it wanders. But Canterbury keeps the heat on till the end; it burns up without burning out.
Fans of ambitious underground theatre will not want to miss this play, and anyone wanting to branch out of the main venues could happily start here. The Box is wedged into a back nook in an eclectic network of artist’s lofts on Niagara Street. Plan to dodge knots of pot-smoking men, and don’t feed the turtle on your way in.
One of the most interesting features of this play is its treatment of sexual ambiguity. The two men can’t decide if they’re gay, and instead of merely riffing on repression, the question feels authentic: it’s hard to tell. Of course, once the question is posed, it’s a quick jump to wondering why it matters.
Freeway Strangler doesn’t offer much resolution, whether to the issues faced by its characters or even to its main plot points. All the better: this play is far too clever and surprising for that.
- Freeway Strangler is playing until June 8 at The Box (89 Niagara Street).
- Shows run Thursday through Sunday at 8pm.
- Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. They’re available online here.
Photograph of the cast by Johnathan Holmes.