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The Living and the Dead 

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
George F. Walker's reputation is vast in Canada. "His work has been honored with six Chalmers Awards, five DORA Awards, and two Governor General's awards" in English-language drama, according to his bio -- that's 13 awards -- and lately he's been whoring for American TV networks, which need all the "creative consultant" help they can get. Walker started his career, legendarily, as a Toronto cabdriver, and has written a cycle of six plays set in the same dingy suburban motel, called Suburban Motel. He's one of those playwrights, like Israel Horovitz, who've based huge careers on a talent for churning out serviceable scripts without much vision. Better Living is a perfect example. Behind the forgettable title is a pale idea for a play, populated with far-out characters, which the Actor's Theater is reviving this month, indifferently.

The story follows a family of women who live near poverty in a ramshackle house. The man who used to be their husband and father is gone; there are hints that the rummy priest who comes around now and then once helped the mom, Nora, in some nasty business concerning this missing man. (They tried to kill him.) Nora immerses herself in heavy work in the basement to improve the house, wearing a yellow rain slicker spattered with mud -- one scene is enough to see that she's gruff, simple, direct, and deeply disturbed. When her husband, Tom, shows up, she doesn't recognize him, although the rest of the family goes into convulsions. Nora thinks he's charming, and lets him re-join the household. She calls him "Tim."

Tom once tried to blow up the house, it turns out, and that's why they've chased him away. He's a smiling, authoritarian ex-cop who believes the Third World is on the verge of attacking the rich countries. To protect his family he imposes discipline: chains go on the cabinets and fridge, barbed wire goes up outside the window; all the women and a boyfriend go on a stringent schedule to finish the basement. "I am the soldier of the total-shit future," he declares. "I am the necessary ingredient for survival."

It all might be funny if it weren't so perplexing. The playwright's exaggerating, but why? Does he think this make-believe vision of violence and denial is a barrel of laughs? Maybe he's commenting on the North American family -- if you were nice, you might imagine that Walker's using the old surrealist formula of trying to get at the truth of a subject by stretching important details to ridiculous lengths. But you'd have to be very nice. It seems more likely that Walker just came up with an over-the-top idea for a play, which he proceeded to write without much urgency or point.

Part of the fault belongs to the Actor's Theater. Steven Coleman has done a nice, drab, kitchen-sink set, but Keith Phillips has directed with a loose hand, so the characters talk past each other. There's no energy onstage. Each scene is chopped by sudden blackouts and thumping, distorted guitar that seems to have nothing to do with the play. Catherine Castellanos as the panicked middle sister Mary Anne, Jen Welch as the zebra-striped youngest sister Gail, and Peggy Lopipero as the responsible lawyer-sister Elizabeth all line-read with varying degrees of conviction. Liz Ryan does a convincing job as Nora, although it's not clear whether she wants to cover an Irish accent or achieve one, and Dennis Conway is an effectively dissolute drunken priest. But the play's characters don't develop so much as change in sudden jerks.

Bruce Mackey's Tom is the big exception. If Tom's an asshole, he may also be the only real character on the stage, because you can believe, in a way you can't with Nora and the priest, that he would try to kill a family member. Mackey's hickory-hewn face and white-haired swagger exude "Man With a Past"; there's something malevolent under his smiling charm. The rest of the show thirsts for as much complexity. Any script that asks you to accept a deep intra-family feud involving firearms and bombs needs to make some point beyond, "Here's a really dysfunctional family." At the very least, it needs to make you laugh.


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