Review: The Hot L Baltimore (Steppenwolf Theatre)

     
     

Grit and sass can’t carry a play

     
     

Molly Regan, Yasen Peyankov, Allison Torem, Namir Smallwood

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
The Hot L Baltimore
 
Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Tina Landau
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

For the most part, there are two types of plays: character-based and plot-based. But the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s new production, The Hot L Baltimore, exemplifies a third category—the thematic play. Rather than focus on fleshing out characters or exciting the audience with a compelling story, this third category aims to meditate on a concept. What plays out is a dramatic allegory that is rooted more in poetry than prose.

Kate Arrignton and Namir SmallwoodAnd although there certainly is beauty to be found in such an ethereal script, there’s not a lot of meat. The Hot L Baltimore, which was written by recently deceased playwright Lanford Wilson, features a cast of more than a dozen characters. With so many personalities and such surface level characterization, it’s difficult to develop a fondness for anyone in particular. And the story, which revolves around the impending demolition of an old hotel, is definitely existential in nature. But rather than having the absurd charm of a Waiting for Godot, The Hot L Baltimore is a slice-of-life. So we’re stuck in this realistic drama, left to watch the hotel’s inhabitants wait. And watching a bunch of people wait doesn’t really fuel a play forward.

The Hot L Baltimore centers around a once grand hotel that has become old and dilapidated. It has been announced that it will be demolished, which riles up its eclectic cast of inhabitants, including a number of prostitutes, a sickly kvetching old man and a brother-sister duo with big dreams. The motley crew interact in the hotel’s lobby, their sad pasts and unfortunate presents always undulating beneath each conversation.

Not much really happens throughout the course of the play. A few incidents arise that register a slight uptick on the EKG meter of entertainment. For instance, a young man (Samuel Taylor) arrives looking for information on his missing grandfather. Suzy (Kate Arrington), one of the hotel’s hookers, gets into a fight with a client. Meanwhile, Jackie (Alana Arenas) and her brother Jamie (Namir Smallwood) discover, to their chagrin, that the farmland they purchased is as fertile as the Sahara.

Don’t get me wrong. These are interesting people. And the parallel between the tarnished glitz of the hotel and the residents’ destitute lives is an interesting metaphor. But that’s just not enough steam to power this locomotive. And so by the end of the very long first act, I hoped that what I just saw was lengthy exposition and that the pay off would come in act two. But the pay off never came. The play just ends, as eventfully as it started.

    
Ensemble member James Vincent Meredith and Jacqueline Williams Ensemble member Kate Arrignton, De'Adre Aziza and Allison Torem
Ensemble member Kate Arrington and De'Adre Aziza Namir Smallwood, ensemble member Alana Arenas and ensemble member James Vincent Meredith Ensemble member Molly Regan, Jacqueline Williams and Samuel Taylor

As esteemed as Wilson may be, I fail to see how this is a good script. It’s got a lot of potential. Attitude, sass, grit and humor. But these things are intangibles. Without a character or a story to ground us, all the sass in the world can’t save a play.

Director Tina Landau, who is also incredibly accomplished, faced a challenge with bringing this work to life. I enjoy the simultaneous action she injects into the production. Characters meander around the two-story set, exemplifying the vibrancy that inhabits this dying hotel. But there is something lost here that not even Landau can find, and that’s providing an explanation for why we should care. Landau tries to address this by spotlighting characters and underscoring monologues with sappy music. But these devices come off as awkward and contrived.

If there is any reason to see this play, it’s because of the acting. The entire cast delivers fantastic performances. Standouts include de’Adre Aziza as the feisty smart-talking call girl April, and Namir Smallwood as the feeble young man who is in the custody of his hotheaded sister.

The Hot L Baltimore is one of those plays that has lost its relevance with time. The grit of yesterday is today’s old news. And the concept of a dying America has been portrayed more artfully. Meanwhile, Landau’s heavy-handed treatment isn’t much of a help. At least some redemption can be found in the cast.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Ensemble member Jon Michael Hill, Allison Torem and Jacqueline Williams. Photo by Michael Brosilow

The Hot L Baltimore continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 29th, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm.  Wednesday matinees on May 11, 18 & 25 at 2 pm. Tickets are $20-$73, and can be purchased online or by calling (312) 335-1650.

 

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REVIEW: The Boys Room (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Victory Gardens creates powerful portrait of family paralysis

  
  

Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
The Boys Room
  
Written by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Sandy Shinner
at Victory Garden’s Biograph Theater, 4233 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Because the recession has foreclosed so many homes, a lot of “boomerang kids” have returned to the nest–to the confusion of parents who thought they’d seen the last of them. It’s even more poignant if, 30 years after they supposedly left home, two middle-aged guys have returned to the sender, so to speak. That’s the bittersweet case in The Boys Room, Joel Drake Johnson’s moving portrait of two stunted sons and their arrested development.

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' at Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.A Victory Gardens Theater world premiere richly staged by Sandy Shinner, this 90-minute slice of loss exposes the longings of two brothers’ midlife crises. Then there are the women—a mother and a son’s daughter—who contend with the brothers’ dangerous nostalgia (or regression) for their safe, secure upstairs bedroom.

Sibling rivalry is only one of the reversions that become blasts from the past. Jobless and in a troubled marriage, Tim (Steve Key) is now curled up in his childhood bed by the window: There he reads “Jane Eyre” to help his daughter in her English class, then cries himself to sleep each night. To his rage, he’s soon joined by his older brother Ron (Joe Dempsey), a grizzled dentist who left his wife and daughter because he couldn’t deal with the former’s breast cancer. (You hear “This is MY room!” a lot here.)

The brothers’ “odd couple” obviously disrupt the peaceful life of their aging mother Susan (Mary Ann Thebus), who just wants to learn Spanish so she can enjoy her elderly Latino lover all the more. Her well-earned retirement has been disrupted by all the unpacked emotional baggage her “boys” have brought home along with a lot of laundry she refuses to do. (She compares Tim’s restlessness upstairs to having “a rat rustling in the room.”)

Enraged at her father’s desertion, Ron’s teenage daughter Roann (Allison Torem) has been sent by her mom to find out Ron’s plans for any future they can forge. It’s up to her grandmother to give 16-year-old Roann the strength to endure what her sons have yet to master. In her final speech she remembers how the death of their father almost destroyed the family but, if they got through that, then…

             
Steve Key, Mary Ann Thebus and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren. Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is not your usual dysfunctional-family dark comedy where sitcom crises mount with the laugh track, only to have recriminations replaced by reconciliation. Johnson has a great ear for loud desperation and the self-sustaining logic of failure and the pitilessness of pity. There are no happy resolutions here, just simple survival. That makes this play far kinder to its audience’s collective intelligence than all the wishful thinking that makes for second-act hugs and unearned happy endings.

Shinner’s staging is equally grown-up. There’s obvious humor in two loser husbands turning back into whining boys, reenacting old games that made them feel safer and wanting mommy to make everything right. But Key’s Tim is far too damaged to be healed by memory-mongering, while Dempsey’s explosive Ron is paralyzed with self-loathing.

Forward facing where the men are sinking into a bogus boyhood, the women are far stronger souls. Thebus’ tough-loving Susan is a rich mix of resilience and resignation, unwilling to indulge this second childhood one second more than she needs to. Equally remarkable, Torem’s anguished adolescent conjures up all the collateral damage of broken homes and makes it as specific as a scream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in Victory Garden's 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

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REVIEW: Kid Sister (Profiles Theatre)

   
   

Loud and Louder

   
  

Kid Sister - Profiles Theatre Chicago

   
   
Profiles Theatre presents
   
Kid Sister
   
Written by Will Kern
Directed by
Joe Jahraus
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

Holy mother of swamp rat excrescence!  I suppose there are more repetitive, unimaginative and utterly pointless plays out there than Kid Sister, but none come to mind. If we didn’t have 15 years of solid Profiles productions still in memory, their latest would be enough to make us swear off the Broadway Avenue black box. Because taking in Will Kern’s drama of Flo}rida misfits is just about as entertaining as watching a bunch of mean drunks scream at each other for 80 solid minutes. And I’m not talking witty drunks. I’m talking the sort of dumb, depressing drunks whose verbal skills make the repartee on Jerry Springer look positively Coward-esque by comparison.

Kid Sister 2 - Profiles Theatre ChicagoIt’s tough to believe this waste of space, time and good actors is by the same author as Hellcab. One wonders what befell playwright Will Kern in the years between that earlier effort – a whipsmart, insightful comedy peopled with characters of razorsharp definition – and Kid Sister. Hellcab ran for nearly a decade in Chicago, and deservedly so. Kid Sister should not run beyond opening night. And that’s being generous.

On the surface, Kid Sister invites comparisons to Killer Joe (our review ★★★½), Tracy Letts’ thrilling and twisted comedy of matricide, sociopaths and trailer trash (and a huge hit for Profiles earlier this year). Like Killer Joe, Kid Sister’s set is a single room filled with strewn junk food wrappers and booze bottles, furnished by a grimy refrigerator, a battered card table, and a couch that looks like a health hazard. The similarities continue:  There’s a murder involving trash bags, and an ensemble of characters who lack the basic vocabulary to make themselves understood. But where Killer Joe was brilliantly funny and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Kid Sister is neither. Instead of dialogue, Kid Sister gives us people screaming at each other with all the verbal skills of slow middle schoolers.

Which would be fine if Kern gave us characters worth caring about. He doesn’t. Not for a moment in Kid Sister is there ever a single person to empathize with, and thus not for a moment does it ever feel like anything is at stake. You’re simply watching people act out, moving from one scene of shrieking degradation to another.

Directed by Joe Jahraus, Kid Sister begins with 19-year-old Demi –making the skanky most of both boobs and legs in a tatty denim miniskirt and a dollar-store hoochie mama top – screeching and waving a gun as her sadsack boyfriend Babe comes home from a shift at a local fast food joint. Despite the barrage of c*nts and f*cks and other profanities Demi hurls, the scene isn’t so much shocking as it is boring and repetitive. After the first three or so c-words, the shock turns into tedium.

That tedium isn’t broken up by any gradation in emotion either – Demi (Allison Torem) starts at 10 on the shrill-o-meter and remains there for the duration of the production. It’s a one-note performance: Imagine someone blasting a referee’s whistle for almost an hour and a half – that’s the overall tone of Kid Sister.

But it’s not just the grim, monotonous invective that makes Kid Sister such a non-starter despite its high-decibel attempts to be otherwise. Demi, the character at the center of the plot, is so over-the-top in her delusional self-centeredness that she’s never once believable. I get it – she’s supposed to be up to her eyeballs in denial about the bleak reality of her situation and/or profoundly damaged by years of drugs and abuse. But even taking such limitations into account, it’s simply not believable that a 19-year-old with a functioning brain stem would be so mired in fairy tale-level delusion. Prattling on about how she’s going to be rich, famous and hanging out with Gwen Stefani in six months, Demi sounds like a bratty five-year-old.

Even if Demi’s extreme pipe dreams were believable, Kern gives us no reason to care about them – or her or any one she interacts with. His plot is a series of unfortunate events strung together with all the dramatic tension of so many non-sequitors. When Demi’s stalker (Marc Singletary) finally shows up, it’s a shrugging so-what kind of moment. When Demi’s brother (Darrell Cox) makes an unexpected revelation , it’s about as momentous as a traffic report. When splatter-film-worthy violence erupts in the piece’s denouement, the result isn’t edginess or horrifying – it’s just cheesy gory like a scene out of a bargain basement haunted house. But unlike a low-budget haunted house scene, this Sister is simply no fun.

   
   
Rating:
 
 

Kid Sister continues through Dec. 19 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $30 Thursdays, $35 Fridays,Saturdays and Sundays, For ticket information, click here or go to www.profilestheatre.org.

Kid Sister poster - Profiles Theatre Chicago

 

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REVIEW: Trust (Lookingglass Theatre)

An uncompromising, heart-wrenching look at internet predators.

 
 

Trust-Reshoot-Final_normal

 
Trust
 
By David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin
Directed by David Schwimmer and Heidi Stillman
At: Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan
Through April 25 (more info)

By Catey Sullivan 

Toward the final third of Trust, one of the supposed good guys tosses off a line that shows with stark authenticity how victims of internet pedophilia and so called “date” rape are brutally, casually and constantly re-victimized by mainstream society.

Raymond Fox, Allison ToremFourteen-year-old Annie (Allison Torem) has been raped by a 35-year-old she met online when he was posing as a high school sophomore. Her father Will (Philip R. Smith), having just jeopardized a major client at work, finally explains to a colleague that he’s been distracted because of the crime. The co-worker, horrified, sympathizes. Will keeps talking, explaining that Annie’s rapist groomed her for months in chat rooms before meeting her at a mall and then taking her to a hotel room.

Oh,” says the colleague (Keith Kupferer) with palpable relief. “I thought you meant she was attacked. “

It’s then that you realize that Annie hasn’t been victimized only by a pedophile. She’s also getting it from upstanding, law-abiding adults – the sort of good people charged with keeping children safe in any civilized community. Trust illustrates with harrowing accuracy the vast, ingrained and wholly accepted practice of how that safety is violated by a society that routinely diminishes rape’s violence by qualifying it: If the rape happened on a date, if it was by an acquaintance, if the victim wasn’t snatched by a stranger, if she went to the hotel room without screaming, if she sent suggestive e-mails before hand – well then, phew. That’s not so bad. At least it wasn’t the bad kind of rape.

Except for of course, it was. All rape is bad. And those facts are driven home relentlessly in Trust, penned by David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin (based on a screenplay by Bellin and Rob Festinger).

Directed for the Lookingglass Theatre Company by Schwimmer and Heidi Stillman, Trust isn’t a perfect play. It has its movie-of-the-week moments. But it also packs a high-intensity emotional wallop, thanks to an overall excellent ensemble and an extraordinarily powerful performance from Torem as Annie. Moreover, it’s with merciless authenticity that Trust depicts the ever-increasing circle of damage that occurs as a result of Annie’s rape. The high-school soccer player is the immediate victim, but Trust also shows how her attacker (Raymond J. Fox) thoroughly poisons her whole family.

The piece is also uncompromising in its refusal to tie everything up. Unlike on television’s CSI, sex crimes tend to drag on for months and often, even years. The cops are understaffed. The FBI spends most of its budget fighting terrorists. And guys like the one who devastated Annie? The know how to vanish. As Torem’s heart-breaking performance illustrates, they also know how to manipulate the victim until black seems white and bad seems good. Despite what police, her therapist and her parents tell her, Annie “knows” that the man who raped her loves her. Even as her behavior grows erratic and her moods ever darker, she believes all would be well if only she were left to be with the man that she loves as deeply as he loves her.

Were it an easier play, Trust would end when Annie finally faces the worst about her attacker, the promise of recovery a certainty. But to its credit, this is no an easy play. Annie confronts the worst, and then spirals dangerously downward, moving from angry to suicidal in the time it takes to call up a Myspace page.

Amy J. Carle, Allison Torem, Morocco Omari, Philip R. Smith Philip R. Smith
Spencer Curnutt and Allison Torem Trust-porch

With an equally vivid and disheartening sense of truth, Trust also shows how  mass-marketed pop culture  often seems designed to provide pedophiles with constant stimulation. Structurally speaking, it’s a bit contrived that Annie’s father is immersed in an ad campaign that glorifies adolescent sexuality. Contrived or not, it works. It’s tragic and ironic that Will’s career has him bringing the ‘tween market to the Academic Appeal (read: American Apparel) clothing corporation via images of barely pubescent boys and girls posing in their underwear. If Annie’s rapist wants to stoke his libido, all he has to do flip though Elle for Girls.

The taut, 90-minute drama also knocks the foundation out from under the fallacy that allows wealthy, stable and loving families to believe they are immune to tragedies like the one that unfolds in Trust. Victims like Annie, so many misguidedly insist, are the product of neglectful parents, poverty or broken homes. Yet Annie’s Wilmette family is close. They eat together. Her parents monitor her chat room buddies. Against the wiles of a predator, they’re sheep obliviously headed for the slaughter.

There is no happy ending here, just a sense that maybe Annie and her family will somehow survive, perhaps stronger, perhaps wiser, certainly sadder and angrier and robbed of a priceless, innocent confidence in the basic goodness of their world.

With  its final scene, Trust leaves the audience heart-wrenched and exhausted .

Whether the script would have that same emotional heft with an even slightly less seasoned cast is a valid, question. Annie’s parents, her best friend, the assorted social workers and FBI workers – all are saddled with characters who react more than anything else. In an ideal dramatic world, the story that propels the characters as much as the characters propel the story. Here, the latter dominates.

Despite that, Trust works dramatically. It is also visually strong, with appropriately tech-heavy use of computer projections, video (Tom Hodges), and IMs appearing as characters type them.

Slick and riveting, Trust is a show of urgency and – sadly – great timeliness.

Rating: ★★★½

 

 

Resource Guide

Our Lead Community Partner, Rape Victim Advocates, has created the following resources on families and technology.