Not exactly sweet dreams at this Suburban Motel

In "The End of Civilization," a one-act from George F. Walker's "Suburban Motel" cycle: (from left) Steven Wright, Brian Anthony Wilson, Michelle Pauls, Kenneth John McGregor.
In "The End of Civilization," a one-act from George F. Walker's "Suburban Motel" cycle: (from left) Steven Wright, Brian Anthony Wilson, Michelle Pauls, Kenneth John McGregor.
Posted: June 11, 2012

The very title of George F. Walker's six-play cycle Suburban Motel doesn't bode well for its characters. The Canadian playwright isn't well-known in the United States, one reason Walking Fish Theatre wanted to bring the entire cycle to Philadelphia between this season and next, starting with The End of Civilization and Featuring Loretta.

But based on experience — Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, Tracy Letts' Bug — you don't have to know much about Walker to know that if a play occurs in a motel, even a Canadian one, you won't be watching happy families visit Niagara Falls.

Each one-act stands on its own, though a few (not these two) have overlapping characters. But even when the characters are new, they're not. They're exactly whom you'd expect to meet in a nondescript motel room onstage: night crawlers, people on the verge of falling apart or already down in it. The End of Civilization uses film noir flourishes (a Walker specialty) such as murders, hookers, crooked cops, and disorienting shifts in time. Featuring Loretta takes a comic approach, with the room hosting amateur pornographers and the Russian emigre daughter of an ex-KGB agent.

Both plays are directed by Stan Heleva, with uneven success. Of the two, Featuring Loretta hits its marks most, and that's due primarily to Sean Close, a young actor who is building a solid career playing high-strung losers. In this case, he's Dave, unrequited lover of Lorrie (Jody Gross), the room's occupant, and a knockout who's as long of leg as she is short of cash.

Add Michael (James Kiesel), a sleazy nobody who sees a payday in Lorrie's assets, and shake. This cast has a good time posing and fighting, and it's fun to watch the boys tussle like fifth graders over a girl who'd rather they just go away. The play's message? Women like to make their own decisions, even the bad ones.

The End of Civilization falls even farther down the economic ladder. Where Featuring Loretta's characters at least have time on their side, Henry (Kenneth John McGregor) and Lily (Michelle Pauls), a middle-class married couple, suffer a midlife crisis during which Henry gets laid off. Like generations of migrant workers before them, they send their children to stay with friends, move into the motel while Henry looks for work, and fall deeper into debt and desperation.

Brian Anthony Wilson and Steven Wright, cops barely one degree of separation from their quarry, strike an uneasy balance between order and chaos, and Gina Martino gives a fierceness to prostitute Sandy, whose tweaked-out jumpiness never clouds her instincts for self-preservation. But Pauls and McGregor are always a shade too overwrought, never quite believable as a couple or in their characters' own motivations.

There's enough blame to go around. McGregor needs a few more passes through his script, but Heleva has them leap into their choices, rather than slide. And Walker sure can belabor a point; neither play reaches 90 minutes, but both feel longer. Still, it's worth checking out Featuring Loretta, and maybe even checking in at Suburban Motel's other rooms next season.


The End of Civilization and Featuring Loretta

Walking Fish Theatre, 2509 Frankford Ave. Through June 30. Tickets: $20 for one show, $30 for both. Information: 215-427-WALK or www.bsomeday.org

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