Review: Criminal Genius (Don’t Look Down Theatre)

Laser-quick comedy barrels across the Toronto stage

Don’t Look Down Theatre’s recent production of George F. Walker’s work Criminal Genius, hits the audience in all the right spots: ripe with quick word play and sly humour, the amount of laughter this show inspires is truly impressive.

When Rolly and Stevie Moore (Gordon Harper and Ryan James), sub-par brothers in crime, have been hired by Shirley (a non-nonsense biker chick with a fiery attitude, played by Erin Maxfield) to hold a hostage in their motel room, unexpected antics ensue as Shirley tries to keep the boys on task and under control.

The show opens to a seriously drab motel room with Stevie and Rolly Moore in the middle of a high strung battle over what to do about the aggressive knocking at their door. They set the show off to a roaring start as they banter back and forth at top speed. James and Harper’s chemistry is red hot, they’ve got the whole “buddy comedy” thing down to a tee. The Moore brothers bring comedy to the stage by the handful, to the point where it feels like everything they say is followed by a substantial bout of laughter.

Phillie Phillips (Daniel Entz) is another standout for me. His portrayal of a seedy, alcoholic motel manager is one for the books. He has this eerie presence where you don’t know what he’s going to do next — burst out into an angry fit or fall to his knees in tears. His final monologue behind the bathroom door landed like a melodramatic Monty-Python bit, and yes, that’s a compliment. It was funny, sad and endearing all at the same time.

While the male characters pop in this show, the female characters seem a bit laborious and drawn out to me. Both Martha Moldover and Erin Maxfield play their roles with gusto and drive, there’s no doubt about that, but despite the commendable performances, the characters still felt one-sided to me. It seems like the only thing Shirley and Amanda Castle know how to do is yell, really loudly, in an accusational tone, about everything. I found myself tired of hearing from these characters less than halfway through,

Regardless, George F. Walker’s script really shines in Don’t Look Down’s production, particularly when it comes to dialogue and moment-to-moment humour. The jokes are laser-quick, almost spastic in nature. The only thing that slows it down at times are, as I mentioned earlier, the excessive, drawn out shouting spells. These are dramatic, yes, but they ended up feeling more like an obstacle to the humor considering how long and, frankly, repetitive they are. I found myself counting down the seconds, waiting for these shouting matches to just be over with so we can all get back to the fun and games.

Despite that one set back, Criminal Genius really punches us where it’s funny, with tons of gags and snappy wordplay to spare. The cast really understood the subtlety in the text, resulting in a performance that really brings Walker’s script to justice. I left the theatre with a sizeable smirk on my face and judging by the reaction of the audience, so did they.

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Photo of Martha Moldover, Erin Maxfield, Daniel Entz, Ryan James and Gordon Harper provided by the company.

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