by George F. Walker
George F. Walker has a reputation as an extraordinarily witty and adventurous playwright, and the Suburban Motel Series (six one-act plays, including Criminal Genius, all set in the same run-down motel) forms part of the basis of that reputation. On the evidence of the UNB Theatre production, it's easy to see why he's regarded as witty, but a little harder to see evidence of the adventurous or ground-breaking nature of his work. Fundamentally, Criminal Genius is -- as has been observed before -- rather like The Three Stooges meet Reservoir Dogs. Or possibly America's Dumbest Criminals as staged by, say, Sam Peckinpah -- and scripted by David Mamet.
The play has a pretty simple premise: Rolly and his son Stevie have just screwed up. Hired by the tough, and tough-talking Shirley to set fire to a restaurant, they have opted instead to kidnap the dishwasher, who is tied up in the bathroom. The four characters involved -- the dishwasher turns out to be the equally tough, and equally tough-talking, daughter of the mobster who wanted the restaurant torched -- along with the drunken owner-manager of the motel, who wants his night's rent, spend the rest of the play desperately and hopelessly trying to extricate themselves from the consequences. While there are plenty of shticks introduced which allow everyone to get an appropriate share of laughs, there's almost no sense of progress in the plot, and not a hint of development or learning in the characters: it's all one situation and, fundamentally, one set of cartoon-like characteristics for each actor. This makes it difficult for a company to get an audience engaged; what tends to happen is short-term, sitcom-like jokes. Stevie is stupid, and Rolly makes fun of him. "They'll blame. They think you're just a moron or something." "Why do they think that?" "Because that's what I told them." Rolly has developed scruples from reading popular magazines, and everybody makes fun of him. Shirley is vicious, violent, voices contempt for Rolly and Stevie ("People aren't scared of you. People laugh at you. Everyone. Even cooks"), and tells us all how bad things are and how she's going to have to think of a way out ("Shut up. Tell him to shut up. Everyone shut up. I gotta think"). She doesn't, of course, and the torch is passed to Amanda, who, although her motives are different, is almost exactly the same character: she, too makes contemptuous remarks to and about Rolly and Stevie, tries to think of plans, and fails.
And finally, there's Phillie, the drunken landlord, who gets more laughs than anybody else (including the last one), and whose motives are pretty much restricted to getting his forty bucks and getting out.
What it all amounts to is about an hour's worth of laughter and a bloodbath; as an early reviewer wryly observed, "if you're looking for meaning, look elsewhere." Given this, the five actors did commendable jobs of keeping the action rolling full tilt and the laughs erupting regularly. I particularly liked the idea of having Stevie wheel Amanda of the bathroom on a refrigerator cart, roped to it like a mummy, and with an apple in her mouth. # is a stolid but voluble Rolly; # is a wonderfully nervous Stevie (think any slapstick comedy team you can think of: Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, two-thirds of the Stooges). # is a zippy, articulate, clearly defined Shirley, and Karen Buchanan is a properly predatory Amanda, and Andrew # is, well, as good a drunk as we've seen on the Mem Hall stage. The problem with each character's role, and one which none of the actors really managed to solve, is that they only have one note each, and the lines and the gestures begin to seem repetitive after a while. The best example is #'s Shirley, who bursts onstage with a genuine explosion of physical and verbal violence, but who runs out of gestures after a few minutes: you can only rub your head to show though, point violently at people to emphasize your contempt, and slump dispiritedly on the bed in desperation so many times.
It seems likely that for the play to be more than an increasingly frantic series of gangster and criminal jokes it would require a really remarkable cast and production crew, bringing their own imaginative creation to the roles, rather like Brando did to the role of Don Corleone. The fact that this didn't happen shouldn't be taken as a reflection on the UNB production, which delivered a solid, and funny, evening of great one-liners. What more could you ask?
Well, in fact, of course, rather a lot more . . . but I think it would be asking too much to ask it of a production of Criminal Genius.