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A CurtainUp Review
Criminals in Love
A hodgepodge of slapstick, teen romance, and action film, with undigested bits of poetry and social commentary mixed in, Criminals is enjoyably strange. Sightlines' production of it, crisply directed by Eileen Phelan, is perhaps not strange enough.
Junior, a schlubby teenage dropout just coming into his own, just wants to lead a happy life with his girlfriend Gail, an assertive neighborhood girl with a pragmatic mind and a penchant for liquid eyeliner. Standing in his way -- as is announced formally in the first scene- - is the "problem" of Junior's recently incarcerated, abusive father, who is allowing his brother to suck Junior into the family's world of (poorly) organized crime to save his own skin. Too squeamish to risk his loathsome father's life, Junior agrees, drawing Gail and her friend Sandy into a series of misdemeanors so petty that they include breaking into a Salvation Army warehouse for a few cans of black beans. Crimes escalate and soon, and as Junior would have it, inevitably, the well-intentioned teenagers are facing the blinding white of police lights and the sinking realization that they've become what they sought to avoid.
Indeed, "destiny" is an obsession in Walker's script, one hint that the playwright intended something other than kitchen sink realism. Junior repeats the word like a mantra, looking to Gail as the only one capable of saving him from his otherwise certain fate. But the more the word is reiterated the less developed the concept feels and, more importantly, Franklin Clay Boyd's Junior is too tepid to command fear or pity and too cloudy to provide a window into his struggle. Boyd is at his most believable in playing Junior's need for Gail. His most interesting scene is the first one in which his seduction consists hilariously of thirty-five seconds with his head inside her sweatshirt as he declares undying affection for her breasts. This rare and touchingly strange moment of desire turns out to be more plot device than character quirk, an early signal that Junior needs Gail as a surrogate mother.
Walker's humor is straightforward, nearly sitcom-style: the antics of Junior's aunt and crime boss, Wineva, who bestows slobbery kisses upon new acquaintances and makes her underlings don black berets to attack a corporate headquarters; the clever punchlines of William, a philosophical bum who befriends Junior and inexplicably quickly becomes a part of the family. Phelan's jokes land, but they don't have the benefit of emerging in relief from the play's underlying desperation. This lack of struggle also reinforces the tidiness of Walker's script, where no plotline is without resolution and no motivation goes unexplained. The closing tableau, with the police waiting on Junior's doorstep and the young couple deciding how long to resist surrender, feels more like an overt reference to the opening moment than the fateful culmination of their struggle.
There are compelling stories in Phelan's production, though. These come from the supporting characters, the women in Junior's life.
Lila Donnolo's Gail is clear-eyed and convincing, and Faryl Millet's Sandy, a blank-faced waitress dabbling in prostitution and petty crime, is satisfyingly pathetic. The women also hint at the real subject of the show: the neighborhood itself.
As the first of several to be set on the same city blocks, Walker's play the traces the cycles of desperation in a depressed neighborhood, often drifting into overt political commentary to make its point.
Director Phelan highlights the class tensions in the script, but she doesn't create a world out of the motley cast of characters who are products of the same city streets. Junior and Gail, Wineva and William appear as interlopers from another planet, no different from characters in a high school drama flick.
Ryan Kravetz's set is adventurously abstract, but not specific enough to suggest the contours of even a fantastical a neighborhood. A sharper sense of the geography, mood, and trauma of the urban landscape responsible for its inhabitants' plights would only make those plights resonate more.
Sightlines Theater Company presents George F. Walker's six-play cycle, The East End Plays. Three are being presented as full productions in repertory, while the other three are presented as readings. Walker is one of Canada's most acclaimed contemporary playwrights. Other fully staged works in the festival are Love and Anger (Nov 2 -18: Mon, Wed, Thu, Fri at 7:30pm), directed by Lee Gundersheimer and Tough! (Nov 12 - 20: Sat, Sun at 5pm), directed by Chris Mirto. For full details on these and several readings check the company web site: www.sightlinestheater.com
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