THEATRE: Gordon the bleakest of black comedy

Gordon Theatre Network GigCity EdmontonDirector Bradley Moss’ production of Morris Panych’s play Gordon is billed as a black comedy – but might be called a bleak comedy because they don’t get much bleaker.

Gordon is not for the faint of heart. It’s full of violence, both implied and real, awash in profanity with sudden death just a faltering heartbeat away.

The prolific Panych, who is known for his existential plays and black humour, generally finds his barbed wit in cellar-dwelling (but often highly articulate) characters who are trapped in some self-generated lower ring of hell.

There are two Gordons in the play. One (Brian Dooley) is an overweight, middle-aged, whacked-out drunk and wife abuser who at one point acidly grinds out, “Everything bad that’s ever happened to me has already happened.”

Hold on there, Gordon, don’t be so fast. You have yet to renew acquaintances with your son. We first meet the younger Gordon (Joe Perry); his twitchy, lunkheaded disciple Carl (Ben Stevens); and his cynical, vapid (and pregnant) girlfriend, Deirdre (Patricia Cerra) – while they are breaking into his father’s house. Gordon Jr. has been released from jail where he studied enough pop-psychology to make him something of a low-life seer. Observes the now fully-fledged psychopath, “Jail taught me how to be a criminal. I didn’t see its career potential.”

In truth, the younger Gordon may be trained, but he’s all talk and will never be the criminal kingpin he wants to be. Look out, world: this semi-educated, loose cannon, psycho-nut is looking for a place to regroup and then to control the mean streets of Hamilton, Ontario.

His father pines for “the good old times” when he would go out to the bar every night, come home drunk and knock his wife around. His kid would hide under the kitchen table and watch the abuse.

Gordon Theatre Network GigCity Edmonton“He was a twisted little guy,” Dad muses fondly. His son set fires and tore the heads off squirrels and staged elaborate funerals. Dad, “far beyond alcoholism now” talks to “Lloyd,” an imaginary friend and attempts suicide. The two talk about going to Mesa, Arizona as if it were the golden city in the clouds. He thinks his son has been at college.

The play is based on that familiar dramatic trope – the dysfunctional family that finds itself uncomfortably thrown together, forced to revisit the warped relationships that got them to that point. Panych makes no effort to find an easy pop-psychological excuse for their dysfunction. These desperate people are all victims.

The first act doesn’t amount to much. There are a few laughs as Gordon Jr. cruelly and continuously plays with Carl – setting him up and then tearing him down. The father and son circle each other warily.

But it’s all building to the big dramatic payoff in Act 2. The last few minutes approach Greek tragedy in their impact but, although tough to watch, it’s really the only way it all can end.

The father and son performers are well matched. Dooley plays a man wasted by life – an ex-steel worker turned drunk who just seems to be waiting to die. Perry builds on his character’s horrible youth to become the murderous, morality-free brute he is now.  Stevens plays the dense sidekick who might just have a glimmer of conscience but can’t break away from the powerful force of his overbearing leader. And Cerra ably gives us a Deirdre as a sad, lost soul.

The playwright, with the full compliance of director Moss, uses his motley group of losers to probe larger themes of responsibility, good and evil, hope and despair.

Gordon, a production of Theatre Network, plays in the Roxy on Gateway Theatre through May 15.

Photos by Ian Jackson

Top, from left: Patricia Cerra, Joe Perry and Brian Dooley
Middle, from left: Ben Stevens and Joe Perry