Review: Escape from Happiness (Alumnae Theatre)

Escape from Happiness

Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre performs George F Walker’s ’90s-era play Escape from Happiness

Escape from Happiness, currently playing on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage, is a “celebration of the underclass,” according to the director’s note. As far as raisons d’etre go, this one doesn’t feel too auspicious.

Perhaps it’s the inescapable sense that the actors are, in fact, performing the underclass that makes this play so uncomfortable to watch. More likely it’s the fact that they all yell at each other relentlessly.

Escape from Happiness is not a happy play about happy people. The characters are all at the end of their respective ropes. Their lives are consumed by fear, regret, and bitter frustration. Some seethe, some cringe, some screech, some rant, and some nag, but whatever they do, they remain miserable.

The world of the underclass is clearly not a great place to be. There’s opportunity for humor in all this mess, and thankfully some of the characters are imbued with sweet idiosyncrasies and given some quips to deliver, but I mostly thought they were bluntly one-dimensional.

In short, Escape from Happiness is a dark comedic romp about an intensely dysfunctional family that, for bizarre reasons, becomes bunglingly involved in a set of crimes. The way out is the way through, however, and when things are this bad, only good can come from such a crisis.

The characters may discover some relief, but I didn’t feel that this play found a good harmony between its darkness and light. I found the combination was disconcerting and sad rather than sharp and enlivening: the characters are caricatures of themselves, yet freighted with trauma. They engage in oddball antics and give quirky monologues, but mainly they rail at each other derisively. The hysterical desperation was hard for me to take, and harder still to laugh at.

Written by the Canadian playwright George F Walker, this play was first performed in 1991, and it really feels like that era. It’s edgy in the way that grunge rock is edgy. The designers do a brilliant job of re-creating the period: the set is excellently dingy and the costumes are spot-on.

The cast and production team also do a valiant job carrying this confusing script to its conclusion, investing it with all the energy they can muster, which is a lot. They all perform forcefully, and for those who like high-octane theater, this show has plenty of punch. To me, it was a punch in the gut, but that’s just me.

Details

  • Escape from Happiness plays on the Alumnae Theatre Company mainstage (70 Berkeley St).
  • Shows run September 26 – October 11: Wed-Sat at 8PM, Sunday at 2pm.
  • Tickets are $20 Thursday throught Saturday, with a 2-for-1 special on Wednesdays and PWYC on Sundays.
  • Tickets maybe be purchased online at www.alumnaetheatre.com, or reserved at 416-364-4170.

Photo by Scott Gorman