Playwright George F. Walker's name has not become household in this latitude even though he's written nearly 30 works produced and translated all over the world. He's Canadian. And he's had several produced off-Broadway, including Risk Everything back in 1997, when he was 50.
Given his biography, you might expect some kind of staid exploration of family values, or a regional comedy about patois-speaking backwoods ice-fishers. Forget that merde. The guy's dialogue is right up the back alley of Terence McNally and David Mamet. And the family comes off as loony as the inhabitants of off-center David Lindsay-Abaire stuff, packed with as many laughs as there are nuts in standard-issue fruitcake.
Witness for yourself in a well-performed version of Risk Everything directed by John Gresh for his own Caravan Theatre. The four-person cast consists of admirable local talents who make the characters completely believable. However, by opening night, they and Gresh hadn't found the best way to make the material live up to its riotous potential.
Carol, a previously young, sexually voracious gambler and drunk, has tried to cheat a thug out of $68,000. After he's bloodied, bruised and broken her parts, she hides in a motel where her daughter, former hooker Denise ... her kids removed into foster care, by the way ... tries to get her ma to survive by giving up the money. Instead, Carol concocts a scheme which threatens the life of Denise's husband, R.J., a timid ex-con who can't keep his dimly lit mind off TV shows. Then Carol, looking to enjoy what mortality may be left, invites motel neighbor Michael over for a friendly screw. He's a porn-flick producer whose dealings with staged orgasms have made him long to personally experience the real thing. Wild possibilities.
Among the fine players, only Mark Conway Thompson has the perfect lightness. His warmth and style make Michael a distinct, special person, a welcome contrast to Dana Hardy's harsh Denise and Tony Bingham's darkly bewildered R.J. Sharon Brady gives an equally believable performance as Carol, avoiding stereotype by looking and sounding dopily innocent even while using a vocabulary so salty you might want something to drink.
Great comedy comes from characters who don't know that they are funny. But director Gresh and his actors don't seem to have found the key to unlock the comic essence.
Risk Everything continues through April 27. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-523-3986