Motels always reek of sadness, of despair, of cheap soap in tiny paper packages and underpaid cleaning ladies. They’re veritable tragedy stages.

And so they make perfect scenery for Todd Theatre’s new opening acts of playwright George Walker’s ‘Featuring Loretta” and ‘Criminal Genius,” opening today and Friday, respectively. In these shows, which will run on alternating schedules, characters’ lives are constantly upended, sometimes by mere circumstance, sometimes by sinister motive.

The storyline of ‘Featuring Loretta” circles around the pregnant widow Lorrie (played by freshman Annalise Baird), a blue-collar, cowboy-boot-wearing runaway who seems to be the unwitting recipient of everyone else’s emotional baggage. Her would-be next husband Dave (sophomore James Eles) has serious manhood issues and pursues Lorrie relentlessly as his middle-class trophy wife, who could simultaneously complete and begin his nuclear family.

He argues endlessly with his competition Michael (played by senior Philip Dumouchel), who tries and fails to keep his own neediness at bay even while blankly insisting that Lorrie do porn instead.

Squabbles between the two men are punctuated by the entrance and exit of Sophie (played by senior Rebecca Weiss), Lorrie’s neighbor who possesses a penchant for housecleaning when distraught, which she is all the time.

Sophie’s melodramatic concern for her family and her father centers Lorrie in another unfolding family drama which forces her into a caretaker role, even as she is yanked to-and-fro by the battling boys and demanding relatives who constantly ring her room.

Loretta’s insistence on mothering everyone but herself, however, oftentimes makes it difficult for the audience to really sympathize with her character, as she does not seem to make any emotional progress in grieving her now-deceased husband (who we learn was recently mauled by a bear, of all Darwinian demises) or the family she left behind. This barely referenced background story proved frustrating, as it seemed like much of the story circled around, but never thoroughly addressed, Lorrie’s compelling past, despite that it seems to motivate her dubious decisions in the present.

Lorrie’s ultimate resolution to star in pornography flicks to recover her financial autonomy and radically sever herself from her lukewarm hometown life; which reeks of disappointment.

The audience finds itself wishing that a woman capable of bearing (pun intended) so much would refuse to sell herself for so little.

Though we foresee that Lorrie will don the garter belt and pull back the stained bedspread, there is a lingering aftertaste from this decision, as it seems beneath her, even in her motel room accommodations.

While ‘Featuring Loretta” is full of hearty laughs, its more brooding elements do squeak through its thin front of humor.

In contrast, the unrelenting wit of the alternate play ‘Criminal Genius” proves that even such weighty crimes as arson, kidnapping and attempted murder can be commendable if committed with the right mix of blind optimism and endearing idiosyncrasy.

The play opens to a poorly lit motel scene: Deadbeat dad and part-time porno smuggler Rolly (junior John Amir-Fazli) broods over his portentous future, with his eyes fixated on the barricaded door. His overgrown teenage son Stevie (Take Five Scholar Ross Brenneman*) stares, unblinking into the red digits of the alarm clock. Rolly and Stevie visibly tremble in fear as the door shakes, and in barges Phillie (freshman Spencer Klubben), their cheap-vodka-swilling motel landlord, who slurringly requests a $40 motel room payment.

Father and son squabble briefly over paying the motel owner with Stevie’s symbolically charged yet cheap-as-shit watch.

In the scuffle we quickly learn the duo have bigger problems to tackle: They were enlisted by the henchwoman Shirley (played by sophomore Jessica Chinelli) to commit a villainous deed: to burn a restaurant to the ground. Inevitably, they fail at this.

When Shirley arrives on the scene, slamming insults down like spent shotglasses, she discovers Rolly and Stevie have instead kidnapped the restaurant’s chef, Amanda Castle (senior Anna Kroup), the daughter of the man who originally hired the hit.

She, of course, commits a felony herself, and suddenly her big, bad daddy is on his way, armed to the teeth and equipped with a posse. Dun dun dun!

While both plays feature the same ill-fated eventuality and many of the same motifs (power, luck, money and utter hopelessness), they are principally bound by their preoccupation with the same set: the same crusty, desperate setting we’ve seen before in ‘Psycho” and in some of our worst family vacations.

Despite your inclinations to avoid motel rooms at any cost, this performance might well be worth the price of a ticket.

Titus is a member of the class of 2011.

*Brenneman is a member ofthe CT Executive Staff.

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