George F. Walker's "Problem Child" and "Risk Everything" were originally produced as separate plays. Now these portmanteau comedies, which both revolve around the ill fortunes of two central characters, can be seen on a single bill at the Zephyr.
Although it makes for an overlong evening, it's a successful pairing, featuring a terrific cast and hilarious staging by Dan Shor. The laughs are sometimes cheap, but they keep coming, and the contrived situations are so genuinely outrageous, we forgive many structural sins.
R.J. and Denise, who appear in both plays, are colorful losers desperate to fight their way back into society's mainstream. R.J. (Fredric Lane) is an ex-con-turned-television-junkie who is learning how to play the bureaucratic game. But defiant Denise (Annie Fitzgerald), a former prostitute and recovering addict, opts for wacky schemes over genuine contrition. Imagine Lucy Ricardo with a felony rap sheet, and you'll get the picture.
In "Problem Child," R.J. and Denise are struggling to get their baby girl back from child welfare. In "Risk Everything," we meet Denise's mother Carol (hilarious Lee Garlington), a chronic gambler and boozer who makes her screwed-up daughter look like a pillar of rectitude.
Although very funny, "Child" has trouble deciding if it's a straightforward comedy or a drama. "Risk" suffers no such identity crisis. With Shor as escort, both plays take us for an invigorating walk on the wacky side.
* "Problem Child" and "Risk Everything," Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends March 1. $20. (323) 857-7417. Running time:1 hour, 55 minutes.