The comedy is dark indeed in George F. Walker’s Problem Child, and thanks to Walker’s twisted take on life and a quartet of pitch-perfect performances, this Bella Productions/Actor’s Workout Studio production is black comedy at its blackest and funniest.

20something Denise Reynolds (Angela M. Grillo) has been sitting by the phone for the past week waiting for a call that just won’t come. “She told us to stay put,” Denise reminds hubby R.J. (Blaine Vedros) whenever he suggests leaving their dingy suburban motel room for, say, a bite to eat. Fortunately for R.J., he’s got his daytime talk shows to keep him from going stir crazy.  
Right now he’s agonizing over what’s sure to be a disastrous first meeting between a female panelist and her ugly mystery date. “I hate it when it’s this embarrassing,” he tells Denise, holding on to a pillow for comfort.  “I can’t watch!” And then to the TV screen, “Fuck you!  Fuck you, Ricki Lake! Enough is enough!”
These TV talks shows pretty much sum up R.J.’s belief that “life is a place that fucks people like you and me up,” he tells Denise. “Life is just like that show.”
Denise is waiting to hear from social worker Helen Mackie (Irene White), who is supposed to be bringing Denise’s baby back to her after six months in foster care.  Though Denise has had a bit of a problem with alcohol and the teensiest brush with prostitution (prompting her mother to report her to social services), and though R.J.’s only been out of the slammer for a few months, the young mother is still hopeful that Helen will give her back her baby now that R.J.’s got an okay job and Denise has been working on her addictions. After all, it’s Helen’s fault and not her own that Denise started taking drugs in the first place. “I became a drug addict when you took my baby away from me!” she explains, and the only reason she “turned a few tricks” was to pay the rent.
All of this doesn’t sit too well with Helen, who has finally shown up sans baby and sans immediate plans to reunite mother and child … at least not until Denise can prove that she’s truly living her life on the straight and narrow.

When the slacker motel clerk/maid Phillie Phillips (Justin O’Connor) arrives to vacuum Denise and R.J.’s room (“Yeah, it’s pretty clean now. Not that I give a shit”), a drunken Denise gets an idea. What if Phillie kidnaps her baby back from foster care?

This is just the start of Walker’s oh-so-dark 60-minute one-act, which soon has one character buying a gun off a friend, another sniffing someone else’s cosmetics, blood being spilled in the off-stage bathroom, and someone being buried while possibly not quite dead yet. In fact, it doesn’t take long for it to become clear that these characters’ lives are every bit as f’ed up as the ones R.J. gets such a voyeuristic thrill about watching on daytime TV.

Grillo is wonderful as Denise, a perfect role-fit for this petite dynamo with a charming catch in her voice, and she is matched by the ingratiating Vedros as her sweet-at-heart ex-con husband. O’Connor hits all the right notes as the kidnapper who couldn’t, and White is a hoot as a social worker with virtually no sense of boundaries. With roles this broadly written, it would be easy for a less talented cast to be cartoonish, but director Rob Mello knows that the straighter his actors play their roles, the funnier they will be. And funny they are indeed.

Jake Metiva has designed a totally credible seedy motel room (check out those retro lamps and cheesy paintings) and the intro to a Tom Waits song (sounding something like the Theme From Peter Gunn on acid) is a great mood-setter between scenes.  

Problem Child is one of six Walker one-acts published under the umbrella title Suburban Motel.  This production, which grew out of a scene performed by Grillo in Mello’s acting class, makes one eager to see more of them.  Anyone else interested in putting on a show?

Actors Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 16, 2008

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