— L to R - Scott McGowan as Ricky, Amanda Testini as Heidi, Tessa Trach as Jojo & Quinn Cartwright as Sandy. Photo by Emily Cooper.
For the last few days, ever since I saw George F. Walker’s new play The Crowd at Studio 58, I’ve found myself singing, “To the left, to the left,” a refrain from a Beyoncé song that three young women in the play rehearse for a karaoke performance. It’s a catchy tune, and the scenes in which it appears are funny and sexy thanks to the actors, Patrick McDonald’s direction and Walker’s writing.
The lyric is also an index to Walker’s rich, lengthy playwriting career. His work has consistently been to the left politically, championing the marginalized and semi-hopeless poor, like Tina and Bobby, the protagonists of The Crowd and two earlier plays, uneducated twenty-somethings from a bad neighbourhood with no prospects who struggle to make a life for themselves. Walker’s plays have always been to the left artistically, too: off-kilter dark comic realism with a wacky, surreal spin.
The Crowd has Walker’s theatrical signature all over it. It’s shot through with unsentimental sympathy for these kids who are dismissed or fucked over by the system (a couple of brutal cops in this case) but do little to help themselves. Bobby (an impressive Nathan Kay) is a nice but passive guy who lets himself get dragged into trouble by his even dopier no-good friends (Scott McGowan, Gregory Radzimowski, Conor Stinson O’Gorman). Very pregnant Tina (Camille Legg) loves Bobby but is exasperated by him and can only express platitudes about their having to make things better. Not even her highly functional best friend Jill (Raylene Harewood) can do much more than threaten to kick Bobby to death if he doesn’t man up for Tina’s sake. The girls (Lucy McNulty, Amanda Testini, Quinn Cartwright, Tessa Trach) are more attractive than the boys in every way, but appear equally doomed.
The comic rhythms in this production are sometimes slightly out of whack but a couple of scenes are marvelously funny. Leslie Jones, a terrific comedienne, premiered the role of Tina over twenty years ago in Tough!, the first in this series of plays. She appears here—the lone professional actor in the cast—as a tough cop who decides to infiltrate the young people disguised as a clown. What she does to them is hilarious. Equally outrageously funny is a party scene in which the guys try to impress the ladies with their dance moves. Walker wrote the script specifically for these Studio 58 students, and the ensemble scenes show everyone at their best.
Walker ends the play with a bizarre sci-fi twist—aliens ex machina—suggesting that Bobby and Tina and friends’ situation is way too bad for any normal human unraveling. Still, there’s a thin ray of hope that things can get better. And watching this typically talented group of young Studio 58 actors tackle the material, you can’t help feeling more than just a little bit hopeful.