Some of the best entertainments are plot-heavy pulp mysteries: the film Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler’s stories, Agatha Christie’s plays. With unemployment, serial killing, prostitution, addiction, and flawed police detectives, George F. Walker’s THE END OF CIVILIZATION, now onstage at the Walking Fish Theatre in Kensington, Philadelphia, has all the ingredients for a Chandleresque tale and puts them together for a generally satisfying theatrical meal.
Walker’s play is part of his SUBURBAN MOTEL series, short plays set in a seedy hotel room in Anywhere, USA (B. Someday Productions is concurrently staging his FINDING LORETTA at Walking Fish). Though first staged at the height of the 1990s dot com bubble, THE END OF CIVILIZATION is perfectly suited to these more austere economic times.
Middle-class couple Henry (Kenneth John McGregor) and Lily (B. Someday artistic co-director Michelle Pauls) find themselves in the Suburban Motel because Henry is looking for a job. He knows who’s to blame: the people running enormous companies who are chasing enormous profits, “and he knows the only thing between him and these profits is a little human misery. A few layoffs. A little downsizing. Just a little cutback here and there. A prudent reduction in the labour force.”
Lily wants to help, but she comes to realize that “it’s [Henry’s] rope that [they’re] pulling on” and “there’s nothing on the end of the rope worth anything.” The pair’s increasingly desperate actions engage the attention of detective partners Max (Brian Anthony Wilson) and Donny (Stephen Wright) and enterprising neighbor Sandy (Gina Martino).
The acting is universally excellent, even if the interactions don’t always gel. A veteran of the finest cop show of our times, The Wire, Wilson brings a gravitas to his role as a police detective that is a joy to watch; Wright as his partner is also strong. The desperation is humorously and touchingly tangible in Pauls and McGregor’s performances. Martino is the only crossover from the FINDING LORETTA cast, and she delivers in two impressively different roles.
Wallace’s script is open to varied direction: does one play up the humor, the pulp, the raw emotion, the mystery. In FINDING LORETTA, director Stan Heleva emphasizes the pulpy farce to hilariously excellent effect. THE END OF CIVILIZATION engages the audience and has plenty of laughs, but struggles to find a consistent tone.
Discussing the “guilty pleasures” of Chandleresque pulp literature in a recent issue of the New Yorker, critic Arthur Krystal noted “Nothing bogs down a pulpy tale faster than real-life feelings about real life.” THE END OF CIVILIZATION drags as it tries to make squeeze too much meaning and real-life emotion from its over-the-top plot points.
Nevermind. It remains an entertainment. June 3-30, 2012, walkingfishtheatre.com.
Previously published on Stage Magazine.