Theatre in Review: Escape (Creation Production Company at La MaMa)
Everybody in Susan Mosakowski's comic triptych is in need of, well, escape. There's Harry Houdini III, grandson of you-know-who, who works hard at getting out of a straitjacket, a set of chains, a giant milk can, and a coffin, with no success. His wife, Bess, who keeps them financially afloat by working as a dominatrix, suggests that Harry purchase a straitjacket designed specifically for magicians, but to him that would be cheating, a position that is doing nothing for their marriage. Then there's Gus and Lily, a working-class couple; for them, the romance is over, largely because Gus, an elevator repairman, is out of work. Worse, he has become a virtual recluse, stockpiling guns and making dark hints about committing sabotage in one of the buildings where he once worked. Lily repeatedly bolts to spend time with her friend, Doreen, at Dunkin' Donuts, which inflames Gus' jealousy. Meanwhile, an agoraphobic actress named Marilyn is being held hostage in her home by Daddy, a turban-wearing terrorist who may be from the Middle East, Argentina, or Brooklyn, depending on which accent he adopts; in any case, his cause remains mysterious.
Terrorism, unemployment, gun culture, sex for sale, the service economy -- on the face of it, Escape could be taken for a comic comment on life in these United States at this oh-so-fraught moment. But don't kid yourself -- Mosakowski has nothing much to say about any of these, and the hermetically sealed world of Escape is pretty much an exercise in silliness for its own sake. The author seems interested only in spinning variations on the theme of confinement and in making oddball connections between her three storylines. (It eventually becomes clear that all three sets of characters are neighbors.) Many of these involve exchanges of props; Daddy's rifle ends up in Gus' possession, and Daddy finds Harry's straitjacket, which he uses on Marilyn. Harry's coffin ends up in the alley, where it provides a temporary resting place for Daddy. Connecting all three women is their desire to get a cashier's job at the local convenience store.
In any case, whatever theme Mosakowski is working out, even 75 minutes is too long for it. There are a few laughs at first. I rather enjoyed the moment when Bess pulls a pair of handcuffs off of Harry, saying, "I have to go to work" -- clearly, they will be useful on the job -- and some of Gus and Lily's disenchanted exchanges amuse. But the humor becomes increasingly strained as the action becomes both more frantic and more divorced from reality. The author inverts the standard rule of farce, that the action should begin slowly and naturalistically, only gradually building up into hysteria. Escape begins in a state of extreme quirkiness and just keeps going, leaving one with little or nothing to relate to.
The direction, by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, at least makes use of a highly skilled cast. Carlo Albán conveys Harry's desperation as he desperately tries to extricate himself form various forms of confinement. Lauren Fortgang brings a certain style to the role of Marilyn, even when forced to appear in a copy of Marilyn Monroe's iconic Seven-Year-Itch costume, complete with a fan to blow her skirt up. Susan Louise O'Connor makes the most of Lily's few smart remarks. Samantha Soule brings an appealing common-sense attitude to the role of Bess.
Lauren Helpern's tripartite set, depicting all three homes, is an effective piece of work; it can't have been that easy to work out such a complicated ground plan in the smallish Ellen Stewart Theatre, but the designer pulls it off, aided by the ever-shifting lighting of Traci Kilainer Polimeni. Sarah J. Holden's costumes and Bart Fasbender's sound design -- featuring plenty of swing music -- are both perfectly solid.
They're all professionals doing their best, but they can't make Escape anything more than a weightless, self-referential piece of whimsy. The only thing it left me with was a longing to escape the Ellen Stewart Theatre.--David Barbour