Fun for the whole family

Escape From Happiness

By George F. Walker
Directed by Stephen Sunderlin
Vital Theatre Company
432 West 42nd St., 3rd Floor (268-2040)
Equity showcase (closes Oct. 24)
Review by Julie Halpern

Escape From Happiness, George F. Walker's dark comedy about a highly dysfunctional family's struggle to hold their lives together amid many setbacks, mostly of their own creation, is the Vital Theatre Company's second full-length production. Somewhat sitcomesque in feel, nonetheless the characters grabbed the audience's attention early on and managed to hold that interest throughout their eccentric escapades.

Nora, the family matriarch (Carolyn Popp), is certifiably insane, perhaps as a defense mechanism to protect her from the hurt inflicted on the family by her crooked former-cop husband Tom (Marc Moritz), who abandoned the family for many years. Eventually, Tom returns to the family fold, but appears to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Elizabeth (Elissa Groh), their oldest child, has become a high-powered attorney, who deals with the emptiness of her life with sarcasm and cruelty. Mary Ann (Ellen Daschbach) has created a fantasy world, not unlike her mother, but lacks Nora's sense of personal responsibility, frequently abandoning her husband and child in fruitless efforts to find herself. The youngest, Gail (Sarah Schoenberg), has settled into an unpromising marriage to a budding criminal, Junior (Erik Van Wyck), and has devoted herself to raising their daughter. The action begins after Junior is found brutally attacked in what appears to be a botched drug deal.

Director Stephen Sunderlin's high-energy actors were encouraged to explore their off-beat characters, with great success. They were all impressive in their confident physicality. Unfortunately, Sunderlin allowed the pace to drag toward the end of the longish first act.

Carolyn Popp was warm and empathetic as the scattered Nora, Elissa Groh a splendidly brittle and ultimately pathetic Elizabeth, and Ellen Daschbach infused Mary Ann with an irresistibly ditzy charm. Sarah Schoenberg was delightful as Gail, the closest thing to a sane person in this household, and handsome Erik Van Wyck was the quintessential beautiful loser as the thuggish Junior. Mark Moritz as Tom (who later turns out to be faking his senility and is involved with Junior's criminal activity himself) made the most of his complex role, although he was too young to be totally convincing.

Patrick McCarthy (Mike) and Chris Lindsay-Abaire (Dian) made a humorously mismatched pair of police officers, sent to investigate the case. Steve Brady as Rolly and Michael Brandt as Stevie were amusing as the father-son team of robbers responsible for the attack on Junior.

The uncredited set was gratuitously ugly - too much so even for this unfortunate family - with ripped plastic chairs left over from the 1950s. Kari Dian Martin's lighting was excessively harsh and washed out the actors' faces; it needed more gels. The sound design by Ian Murphy was loud and unpleasant, except for the 1950s lounge music during intermission. The fight choreography by David Sitler was executed flawlessly, with a memorable comic moment of the willowy Elizabeth subduing Rolly and gleefully tying him to a chair. The costumes, designed by Nikki Dawn Rudloff, were simple and very appropriate for the characters.
Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 Julie Halpern