Horribly Hilarious 

TheaterFIRST's Criminal Genius is funny and dark.

You just can't get good help anymore. Tough, dyspeptic Shirley has hired the wrong pair of guys to do a job for her, and now things are going magnificently off the rails. Arson, kidnapping, murder, and the wanton destruction of innocent timepieces: Canadian playwright George Walker's Criminal Genius is funny and horrible, full of moments where you ask yourself, should I really be laughing because someone just got shot?

Criminal Genius is also a subtle meditation on class war, and a not-so-subtle explosion of the victim mentality. What the five characters lack in wits, they make up in a keen sense of injustice. Nothing that happens to them is their fault, and they're very clear on that. The bumbling father-and-son team of small-time hoods limited by their convictions ("We don't do violence, it's not our thing"), their salty employer ("Stupid is not a thing I normally have a problem with in a man, but you're toying with a mercy killing"), the perpetually drunk motel manager, even the possibly innocent chef caught up in their scheme — they all have very elaborate explanations for why they're so fucked up. The process of sharing those explanations moves the play to its absurd extremes.

Criminal Genius is one of six plays that make up Walker's Suburban Motel cycle; although each work stands alone, the settings are the same. Anchoring his stories in a rundown motel on the outskirts of a large, nameless North American city let Walker focus on his characters. It's like an exercise you would expect to find in a playwriting seminar, but then much of the play has a certain textbook purity. For example, in improvisational theater there's a game called "Big, Bigger," where the players try through their bodies and voices to outdo one another. There's a clear manifestation of that here when Shirley (Amy Crumpacker) and Amanda have their first (delicious) confrontation to see who'll be the alpha female, although it happens throughout the work.

Erin Gilley's directing is madcap and the writing wry, but this production's strength is its actors. Although the production values are high, TheatreFIRST's main investment appears to have been getting the strongest people it could afford. The boneless Søren Oliver using his whole body to wiggle his shirt into his pants before he utters a word sets up the dynamic: This cast is wild. Although the ending is a little incoherent, this one should please audiences who don't mind a little violence and strong language in their dark comedy.


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