`Criminals In Love': Characters Are Eccentric, Plot Keeps You Guessing

Theater review

"Criminals in Love" by George F. Walker. Directed by James Marsters. Produced by New Mercury Theatre, 206 3rd St. S. Thursdays-Saturdays through Oct. 2. 625-9677. -------------------------------------------------------------------

The product of Toronto's tough East End and the son of an inept hoodlum father, young Junior wants to stay out of trouble. He has a job in a factory, a loving sweetheart, a gentle personality. But when push comes to shove, can he really escape the gravitational pull down into a "legacy" of crime and punishment?

In "Criminals in Love" by Canadian playwright George F. Walker, the rueful answer is probably not.

Walker's ripsaw-sharp black comedy offers a ferocious and very funny demonstration of how bad things happen to good people. And it lays waste to the notion that bootstrap-tugging and moral fiber alone will save slum kids from the sins of their fathers.

On display here in a vigorous production by New Mercury Theatre, the play (part of Walker's four-part "East End" series) tosses together a crazy salad of eccentric characters and wildly unpredictable events.

Thanks to his dense convict father (played by Dave Clapper), the hapless Junior (Christopher Thomle) gets enmeshed in the evil doings of Wineva (Kia Sian), a domineering mobster-moll. Just as entangled with her are Junior's girlfriend Gail (Grace Bennett), a friendly philosopher-bum named William (James Venturini), and Sandy

(Michele Pippin), a young waitress so pragmatic she tries out prostitution as a hedge against future unemployment.

One of the great attractions of "Criminals in Love" is that you rarely know where it's whizzing you from one hot minute to the next. Mysterious boxes appear, bizarre crimes are committed, identities shift, revolution and sibling rivalry and child abuse rear their heads. But true love and friendship do endure - even if family loyalty backfires.

This is a case where low-budget production is not a liability. The New Mercury's brick back wall, narrow playing space and bare-bones scenery (by Jan Tominaga) serve the script well. (Though the many set changes need quickening.)

Director James Marsters lets the momentum flag a bit (as does Walker's invention) toward the end. But in general he has cast and staged this piece persuasively.

Thomle's sweetly befuddled Junior and Bennett's worried Gail are very appealing, while Sian has a field day with the schizzy Wineva. As William, Venturini looks properly disheveled and delivers his load of existential one-liners with mounting conviction.

For all its absurdist humor, poignancy oozes through "Criminals in Love." At one desperate moment, Gail imagines her dream life: a decent job, a house, an unlisted phone. Not much to ask - yet for these kids, too much to hope for. That's sadder than it is funny.