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Lifestyles of the Poor and Drunk

If you've ever mocked the folks on Jerry Springer, Problem Child may make you think again


If you turn on Jenny Jones or The Ricki Lake Show, your first impulse may be to make fun of the shlemiels on the stage (if you believe that these shows aren't scripted in the first place) -- the brother and sister in love, the preteen who "dresses like a slut" -- you know all the stories by now.

Imagine the talk-show tale of a couple who had their baby taken away by the state because the father was in jail and the mother was a drug-addicted prostitute -- typical Jerry Springer stuff, right? Now, imagine that Dad is an unusually sensitive felon and Mom is a depressed, sympathetic character with a mordant wit. The more we learn about this tabloid-worthy couple, the less we want to make fun of them. We may even take their side as they fight to get their child back, a struggle that pits them against an arrogant caseworker who sees the world as divided into two camps: the "civilized" and "uncivilized."

Problem Child, a play produced by the Echo Theatre Company, is a solid, thought-provoking drama that references banal talk shows as it goes about giving depth to its cast of talk-show-style down-and-outers. Denise, a boozing fatalist, and R.J., an ex-con who is somehow also a cockeyed optimist, wait in a seedy motel room for hopeful news of a reunion with their young child.

They are judged severely by visiting caseworker Helen, who carries an air of superiority borne of her power to split and reunite families. Will Denise and R.J. be rejoined by their "problem child"? Do they deserve to be?

The action is leavened with effective humor, such as when Helen accuses Denise of failing to drop her bad habits. "I stay at home and take drugs," responds Denise sarcastically. "Sometimes I go out and fuck people for money: The guy who runs the hardware store. The mayor. The Scoutmaster. I fuck them all."

The modern drama is part of prolific Canadian playwright George F. Walker's "Suburban Motel" cycle, a set of six plays that take place in the same room in a rundown motel. Echo will perform Criminal Genius, a farcical romp that is the third play in the series, in addition to Problem Child, which is the first. The same actor will portray motel caretaker Phillie in both plays. Audiences will enjoy the continuity of seeing both plays, with their shared character, identical set and common themes of violence and longing among the "underclass," to use the term favored by Echo co-founder and producing artistic director Eric Little.

"I think the audiences will see a little bit of themselves in these characters, even though most people might not want to admit it," says Little. In the words of Problem Child's Denise, "We are the scum of the earth." She's addressing her desperate peers, but she's talking about us all.

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