REVIEW: Spin (Theater Wit)

Theater Wit opens new space on a dark note

 

Wit_Spin_2_72dpi

 
Theater Wit presents
 
Spin
 
By Penny Penniston
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
Thru June 5  |  Tickets: $25 (suggested donation) |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"I know you’re watching."

That phrase repeats over and over again in smart new play, Spin, as characters break the fourth wall and address the audience in a series of creepy monologues that compel us to consider life as art and everything we do as theater.

Wit_Spin_9_72dpi The solidly acted and impeccably staged world premiere by Penny Penniston, directed by her husband, Jeremy Wechsler, inaugurates Theater Wit’s terrific new Lakeview home. Theater Wit confusingly calls this somewhat murky black comedy, Penniston’s first play since the 2000 time-travel romance now then again, a "modern-day farce." It’s often funny and sometimes absurd, but don’t expect slamming doors, mixed-up bedrooms, mistaken identities or lightweight humor.

Set in a modern bachelor pad, designed by Jack Magaw, that effectively illustrates what one character describes as a "Pier One explosion," Spin follows Brent, a 40-ish advertising creative in mid-life crisis. Played by Coburn Goss in an Alan Alda-ish vein, Brent’s out of work, recently divorced and questioning the reality of his life. He also has the hots for a gorgeous, teenage homeless girl whom he’s just "rescued" from a fight with her would-be radical boyfriend.

Meanwhile, ex-colleague and old friend Redge, now heading his own agency, recruits Brent for a beer campaign. Joe Foust gives the soulless Redge just the right level of slime. They bring in self-made sports figure Ruby Jones (a cross between Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods) — the slightly stiff Austin Talley – as a spokesman, and create a campaign aimed at a demographic oddly like Brent himself. But an unfortunate viral video and Brent’s unraveling self-image intervene.

The murkiness comes in most strongly with the troubling Lolita-like character of the homeless teenager, Danielle. Is she opportunistic or exploited? Alice Wedoff’s diffident portrayal leaves us guessing, and the role just gets ickier as the play progresses.

Wit_Spin_3_72dpi Wit_Spin_5_72dpi
Wit_Spin_6_72dpi  Wit_Spin_7_72dpi

Danielle’s boyfriend, Aaron (played with puppyish avidity by Michael Kessler) relies on her to feed his ego. Brent deludes himself into thinking she’s 19, when she’s really much younger. Redge takes out-and-out advantage.

She adds little to the play’s themes other than shock factor, though, and it would be a far funnier comedy without her, and particularly without her Act II monologue. Although they address interesting concepts, the introspective monologues obscure the humor generally — and sometimes feel like add-ons meant to stretch a one-act play into a full-length show.

Yet when the dialogue pokes fun at modern memes and 21st-century life, this comedy shines. Lance Baker’s wonderfully understated performance as Jack, a dry-witted account executive offhandedly commenting on the action, forms the highlight of the play. Elements like these overcome the tired tropes of crazy creative, materialistic ad man, impractical idealist and avaricious slut, and make Spin well worth watching.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Wit_Spin_8_72dpi

 

         

Review: Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Fake”

Strong performances fail to compensate for a less-than-compelling script

Photographer: Mark Campbell

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

Fake

written and directed by Eric Simonson
thru November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Richard Millward

Fake-09 Fake, Steppenwolf’s season opener, written and directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson, explores the well-known scientific hoax "Piltdown Man." Initially thought to be the "missing link" and a confirmation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, suspicions about Piltdown’s authenticity cropped up almost immediately and continued to fester until, in 1953, with more modern dating techniques, Piltdown Man was conclusively proven to be a fake. The identity of the fossil’s forger has never been conclusively proven, although it is widely believed to be Charles Dawson, Piltdown Man’s "discoverer."

Simonson juxtaposes two stories, one set in the years following the fossil’s discovery, and a second at the time the hoax is confirmed. Both are fiction, although the earlier story does involve historical personages Dawson, Charles Woodward, director of the prestigious British Museum, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit archaeologist of some note, and author and amateur scientist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Fake-10 Fake-11
Fake-08 Fake-12

Unfortunately, neither story is terribly compelling, alone or in concert with its twin, despite the larger-than-life presence of Doyle. The more modern tale, involving a romantic triangle between the elder Oxford anthropologist charged with ascertaining the fossil’s true age, a female Lithuanian former student half his age who’s also his fiancé, and a young, go-getter specialist from UCLA, is certainly the weaker of the two – as certain as we are of the outcome of their testing of the Piltdown skull, there’s even less mystery how this ill-fated love story will play out.

Some of the Steppenwolf ensemble’s better acting talent is at work here, including Francis Guinan as Doyle and the jilted Oxford don, and Kate Arrington, as a Nellie Bly-type "lady reporter" who uncovers Piltdown Man’s creator and the young Lithuanian. The production’s design, by Todd Rosenthal (scenery), Karin Kopischke (costumes) and Joe Appelt (lighting) is both evocative and pointed.

But in the end, it’s the play itself that disappoints. Simonson’s theme of how and why we come to know what we call "the truth," and what role faith plays in arriving at it, is not uninteresting. But the uneven tone and murky philosophizing of Fake render an interesting idea into a somewhat less than satisfying evening in the theater.

Rating: ««½

Photographer: Mark Campbell Photographer: Mark Campbell 

Photographer: Mark Campbell

Continue reading

Eric Simonson on Scenic Design for Steppenwolf’s “Fake”

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Eric Simonson explains the scenic design for Steppenwolf’s upcoming show Fake, (written, directed and designed by Eric Simonson – wow, busy man….): 

Fake, written and directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson, features ensemble members Alan Wilder, Kate Arrington, Francis Guinan with Larry Yando and Coburn Goss.

Fake runs September 10, 2009 — Sun. November 8 in the downstairs theatre. (buy tickets)

Review: “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at Steppenwolf

Jean is a rather dull, introverted woman.  She spends her free-time reading at coffeehouses whilst the world hums and haws around her.  One day, however, while engrossed in a book, a man next to her refuses to answer his cellphone.  After repeatedly admonishing the man to answer his phone, Jean ventures over to his table, and discovers the stunning reason why the phone was not answered – the man is dead.  As this morbid realization overtakes her, the cellphone again begins to ring; Jean answers it.  So starts the beginning of Jean’s madcap, surreal and at times frustrating journey as created and presented by playwright Sarah Ruhl and Steppenwolf Theatre’s associate director Jessica Thebus – a journey that steamrolls Jean from a dinner with the family of the dead guy (Gordon), a tryst with Gordon’s brother Dwight, separate outings with Gordon’s wife and mistress, a zany afterlife detour, and culminating with a tumultuous South African rendezvous with underworld dealers of body-organ smuggling.  Whew!

There is a lot to love in Dead Man’s Cell Phone.  Above all, it’s a fun and unpredictable.  There are times where Thebus has masterfully created truly refreshing and whimsical stage pictures – the most memorable for me being a scene involving Jean and Dwight: as the two lust-birds go at it in Dwight’s stationary store, glowing paper houses appear in the background, and sheets of stationary flutter and weave down from the ceiling.  Why is this happening?  I don’t fully know, but it sure is amusing.  Ruhl’s skillful writing shines most in her coupled dialogues, especially the hilarious interchange with Jean and Gordon’s widow Hermia over cocktails.  Though all of Dean Man’s technical aspects mirror Steppenwolf’s usual mastery, the lighting outdoes itself.  Lighting designer James Ingalls’ use of illumination to showcase the story is especially evident in his glowing houses (see above) and umbrellas and body parts (see pictures below). 

I have a few misgivings with this production.  Most pertinently, the role of Jean (Polly Noonan) seems to be miscast and a bit misdirected.  Jeans presents herself as a single, twenty-something woman, naively zoned-out, part airhead and part manipulator.  But according to the script she’s actually well into her 30’s, which is not how Jean looks or appears.  Adding to this, we’re denied an ending that matches the quirkiness and magic of the rest of the play, which is unfortunate.

Summary: Dead Man’s Cell Phone, despite a few misdials, is an offbeat, boisterous production that lends itself well to Steppenwolf’s usual topnotch output.  Recommended.

Rating: «««

Production: Dean Man’s Cell Phone
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Jessica Thebus
Featuring: Molly Regan (Mrs Gottlieb), Sarah Charipar (Other Woman, Stranger), Geraldine Dulex (Ensemble), Marc Grapey (Gordon), Coburn Goss (Dwight), Mary Beth Fisher (Hermia), Polly Noonan (Jean), Ben Whiting (Ensemble) and Marilyn Dodds Frank (Mrs Gottlieb after June 1).
Design Team: Scott Bradley (Scenery), Linda Roethke (Costumes), James F. Ingalls (Lighting), Andre Pluess (Sound and Original Music), Ann Boyd (Choreography) Joe Dempsey (Fight Choreography),
Technical Team: Christine D. Freeburg (Stage Manager), Michelle Medvin (Asst. Stage Manager)
More Info: www.steppenwolf.org

Polly Noonan (left) and Marc Grapey (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Polly Noonan (left) and Marc Grapey (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Coburn Goss (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Coburn Goss (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Polly Noonan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Jean (Polly Noonan) answers the dreaded cellphone

(left to right) Coburn Goss, Mary Beth Fisher, Polly Noonan and ensemble member Molly Regan  in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Dinner at the Gotlieb’s with (left to right) Coburn Goss, Mary Beth Fisher, Polly Noonan and ensemble member Molly Regan.

– Marc Grapey in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Marc Grapey as the Dead Man.

Polly Noonan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008. 

Polly Noonan (Jean) with glowing umbrellas. 

Ensemble member Molly Regan in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Mrs. Gotlieb (ensemble member Molly Regan) speaks at funeral. 

Polly Noonan (left) and Mary Beth Fisher (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Happy Hour with Jean (Noonan) and Hermia (Mary Beth Fisher). 

Sarah Charipar (left) and Polly Noonan (right) in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008

The Other Woman (Sarah Charipar) and Jean (Noonan) with glowing kidney.

Polly Noonan and Coburn Goss in Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Jessica Thebus at Steppenwolf Theatre March 27 – July 27, 2008.

Jean (Noonan and Dwight (Coburn Goss) build a paper house.