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.

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Steppenwolf)

  
  

All’s fair in love and total war

  
  

Woolf-3

   
  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
   
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by
Pam MacKinnon
at
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $20-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Don’t go to Steppenwolf’s current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf expecting histrionics—at least, not at the level of scene chewing wrought by many other productions or in the famous movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Director Pam MacKinnon, who brought Edward Albee to Chicago for consultation at the beginning of the cast’s rehearsal, keeps a tight, controlled, and calculated rein on George (Tracy Letts) and Martha’s (Amy Morton) endless war. Theirs is a Cold War that begins casually enough with Martha’s little insults at George and George constantly correcting Martha’s language. Of course, their digs, jibes and strategic one-upmanship quickly escalate to a hot war—a hot war that requires an audience in Honey (Carrie Coon) and Nick (Madison Dirks), newcomers to the university George teaches at. One suspects a hot war is what they’ve wanted all along, no matter what the devastating costs to themselves or how many innocent corpses they leave in their wake.

Woolf-1Watch out, Nick and Honey. Who knew university life in a small town could be so fraught with danger? But George and Martha, bogged down in their own marriage and stifled career prospects, show the newcomers a taste of things to come at New Carthage’s institution of higher learning. George’s lack of advancement in the university’s history department gives Martha plenty of ammunition to assault his manhood; while the sexual accessibility of university wives, give Nick and George plenty of excuse to deprecate the whole notion of marital fidelity or professional advancement according to merit.

Happily, MacKinnon’s deliberate, exacting and controlled direction pays off in spades. The casual, understated and fluid way in which George and Martha debase each other or, from time to time, throw sidelong insults at their guests, practically draws the whole audience into the living room—into George and Martha’s “theater of war.” Only having a drink every time George pours a round would increase the feeling of familiarity with this situation and this couple. Once one is in, one is hooked. The cast almost seamlessly builds the tension to the point of no return. Steppenwolf’s production is within a hair’s breathe of perfection, what with Coon and Dirks freshly backing up old masters Letts and Morton at their seasoned finest.

Don’t be taken in by Steppenwolf’s advertising image for the show: Morton projects a Martha considerably more louche and tipsy on the poster than she ever gets to onstage. Onstage, her Martha, just as she boasts, really can hold her liquor; all the better to keep up controlled, savage verbal attacks as the night worsens. She and Nick clearly play “hump the hostess” for George’s cuckolded come-uppance and professional advantage, Martha’s sex appeal downplayed to a bit of cleavage. Thankfully, what Morton does not downplay, but expertly times, is Martha’s gathering, seething resentment at George. As for Letts, his performance pulls George deeply into himself, to instinctively attack from a defensive position, until his rage over Martha’s humiliation of him in front of Nick and Honey becomes too much.

To watch George’s face flush bright red just before an outburst is to know the depth of Letts’ craft and discipline. One does not–one cannot–dismiss George’s threats, no matter how soft-spoken or tossed off they seem. One takes them all the more seriously and feels all the more uneasy once they’re let loose. I’ve heard some say that this production exposes Martha as the greater monster. Not so. Letts’ George is equally monstrous to anything Martha can dish out—he simply chooses to talk softly while he’s figuring out his next move or his next lacerating remark.

As Honey, Coon does daffy drunk girl to perfection. She can go from silly to pathetic in a nano-second and signify both mindless fun and desperation in Honey’s jokes or interpretive dancing. The most vulnerable of all the characters, Honey easily reflects the damage a truly decadent environment wreaks on the naïve. Too clueless to know what is happening, she can neither oppose nor defend herself against the havoc George and Martha have drawn her and Nick into. Indeed, her abandonment by Nick, once Nick begins to try swimming with the sharks, seems almost a foregone conclusion. Coon earns that pathos and at moments steals the show from the other three.

Indeed, only Dirks reveals some blind spots in his interpretation of Nick. Laying low with Nick’s low-key participation the first act, Dirk’s performance really takes off in the second act, building clear camaraderie with George as he first gains Nick’s confidence, shifting into revenge when George betrays it. But Nick’s intentions become cloudy in the third act when, diminished to the humiliating status of “houseboy,” why Nick chooses to stay and wait out the final round between George and Martha becomes a muddled mystery. Nothing in the script explicitly indicates why. But Dirks has to form a clear motivation for that choice and play it distinctly for the audience or the credibility for Nick and Honey’s presence during the last stage of George and Martha’s total war is lost. It’s a small but critical omission in Dirks’ otherwise sterling performance.

Flaw aside, nothing stops George and Martha’s train to destruction. You’ll find few things more riveting this season than Morton’s depiction of Martha’s emotional devastation or Lett’s hint of sadistic control in the final tableau.

Revisit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and you’ll see once again how Albee’s masterpiece not only captures the disturbing dynamic by which some couples love/hate each other, but also how skillfully he grafts America’s Cold War game playing onto the portrait of a marriage. Throughout the play George and Martha’s marriage–marriage in general–is on trial. But so are America’s wars by proxy, its fallacious attempts at nation building and its imperialist misadventures. When will we ever learn that, in the end, whatever we call “victory” just doesn’t make up for the body count?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woolf-2

 

Artists

Cast

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks

 

Designers / Authors / Production

Author: Edward Albee
Directed by: Pam MacKinnon
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
Lighting Design: Allan Lee Hughes
Sound Design: Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn
Stage Manager: Malcolm Ewen
Assistant Stage Manager: Deb Styer
  
  

REVIEW: The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Ground-breaking production reveals playwright’s brilliance

 BroSis-03

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

The Brother/Sister Plays

 

by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
through May 23rd (more info)

review by Barry Eitel

Tarell Alvin McCraney has received quite a bit of exposure in the theatre blogosphere in recent months. The debut of his Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by the distinguished Tina Landau and featuring a powerhouse ensemble of actors, has made him subject to all sorts of interviews, features, and user comments.

BroSis-01 Fortunately, his work does stand up to the hype. At 29 years old, McCraney is on his way to being one of the premier playwrights of this upcoming decade.

There are plenty of comparisons to be made between McCraney’s work and the cream of the crop of African-American playwrights. Like Lorraine Hansberry, he has a flair for fiery dramatics. Like August Wilson, he layers in plenty of history and culture. Like Suzi Lori-Parks, he can whip out beautiful poetry – even in the darkest of situations. But like the works of all of these playwrights, The Brother/Sister Plays are born out of a multitude of influences. Hints of Brecht, Lorca and Yoruba; writers such as Wole Soyinka mark up McCraney’s loose trilogy of plays. McCraney’s plays are far more than a hodge-podge of influences, though. The Brother/Sister Plays show off a unique style, one that is detonated by Landau’s fertile imagination and the cast’s passionate dedication.

The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf consist of three plays, In the Red and Brown Water, a full-length work, alongside The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet. They are playing the three plays in repertory, with Red and Brown Water going up one night and a double-bill of Brothers Size and Marcus the next. Or you can choose to see all three on a marathon Saturday afternoon/evening. Although not a straight-up trilogy, the three plays are written in a similar style along with sharing characters and community (much like Wilson’s 10-play cycle). Each play works well as an individual piece, however. Red and Brown Water follows a young girl through the years as she struggles against her social class and the men in her life. Although all the plays have elements of song and poetry, this one is chock-full of pulsing, celebratory music and lyrical language. Marcus, the next longest play, takes place years later and details the journey of a teenager discovering his sexuality. It is the most plot-heavy of the three, and probably the most accessible. My personal favorite was The Brothers Size, a succinct, biting, actor’s dream of a play. Painted by social issues ranging from unemployment, homosexuality, and racial profiling, the piece pits two brothers against each other. The tight drama reminded me of David Mamet’s testosterone-crammed American Buffalo, currently sharing a building with these plays. (see our review★★★★)

BroSis-21 BroSis-02
BroSis-09 BroSis-23 BroSis-05

The writing provides a solid base, but the Steppenwolf production soars because of how well Landau’s viewpoints-focused direction compliments McCraney’s avant garde sensibilities. The three plays are set on a more-or-less bare stage, yet space and time are consistently transcended. (Ah, the possibilities of theatre.) It also helps that the ensemble comprises of some of the best actors in the city. The Brothers Size, for example, works so well because of the searing performances pumped out by Philip James Brannon and the great K. Todd Freeman. Other highlights include the brassy Jacqueline Williams and the introspective Glenn Davis.

With any show that experiments as bravely as The Brother/Sister Plays, there is bound to be a few stumbling blocks. The plays are littered with narrative takes to the audience (Ogun will say, “Ogun smiles,” and then he will smile), which create some fantastic moments but also sometimes feel a little overused. Marcus could also use about 15 minutes cut off, and the overall storyline can become convoluted. The theatrical dividends are well worth the occasional hiccup, though. The Brother/Sister Plays make it clear that McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

Continue reading

Review: Steppenwolf Theatre’s ‘Up’

To dream or to be responsible…

Up-1Ensemble member Ian Barford and Tony Hernandez in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Up by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Up

By Bridget Carpenter
Directed by Anne D. Shapiro
Runs through August 23rd
Steppenwolf Theatre

Review by Timothy McGuire

We all struggle between our desire to chase after our dreams and personal aspirations, and the responsibilities we have to take care of our finances and personal relationships. Bridget Carpenter’s “Up” now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre follows the balancing act of a middle aged man with no specific conventional goals as he tries to turn his dreams into reality and support his family in the middle of a tough economic climate. Along with the “dream chaser,” Up follows an average middle-class family proudly in love with the unconventional passions of their husband/father, but questioning the practicality of such a lifestyle as they mature and their financial security is at stake.

Ensemble member Ian Barford and Lauren Katz in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Up by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.  Photo by Michael Brosilow. Walter Griffin is thoughtfully played by Ian Barford. In Walter’s youth he once achieved “stardom” when he attached 45 helium balloons to a lawn chair and took flight solo, 16,000 feet in the air. Years later Walter is still chasing after those dreams of greatness and that sense of freedom. Now married and with a teenage son, Walter spends his time brainstorming and trying to think of his next big idea while his wife provides for the family by working as a mail carrier.

IanBarford-JakecohenIn their youth Walter’s Wife Helen (Lauren Katz) fell in love with Walter due to his adventurist heart and his relentless pursuit for greatness. Their son Mikey (Jake Cohen) idolizes his father’s passion for the joys in life and his courage to pursue an unconventional lifestyle. They have always understood and respected their husband/father but when Helen’s hours get cut at the post office and Mikey meets a new friend that opens his eyes to the necessity of being able to financially provide, their patience with Walter wears thin.

With the daily stresses of bills and constantly having to be the rational mind in the family Helen asks Walter to get a job. Once smitten with the dream chaser inside her husband she now finds herself desiring the stability of a conventional man and pleads for just one day to relax and not have to worry. Helen speaks about her imaginary husband, which represents the change in her feelings towards the man that Walter is. In a flashback you hear Helen refer to her imaginary boyfriend as boring, being someone that is not as stimulating as the actual man she is with. Now married, she refers to her imaginary husband as a provider and a man that supports and takes care of his wife’s needs. Her imaginary husband represents the characteristics that Walter does not posses, but now she wishes he did.

Rachel-Brosnahan-Jake-Cohan Starting his sophomore year of high school Mikey meets a talkative pregnant classmate Maria (Rachel Brosnahan) who thoroughly makes an effort to get to know him through direct questions and honest interest. Rachel Brosnahan gives a wonderful performance of a non-stop curious teenage girl, to the point of driving you crazy as a teenage girl can do. As his relationship with Maria grows, Mikey recognizes the responsibilities that he would have to take on if he was to love her. Loosing faith in his father’s ethos of finding happiness outside of the “establishment,” Mikey wants to make plans to earn money and the stability that a 9-5 job can provide. Secret from his family, he takes on employment from Maria’s fiercely independent Aunt (Martha Lavey) and he finds a means to be a provider with his successful sales skills.

Lauren-Katz-Rachel-Brosnahan Eventually, to appease his wife and take care of his responsibilities as a father, Water accepts conventionality with a new job, and you can see his spirit breaking as he appears somber dressed in a suit and tie. Months later Walter appears up-beat and content with his new employment when he is on stage with Helen, but he demonstrates the overwhelming sense of defeat and depression when alone. His actions are peculiar for a hard working man, he still privately holds to his personal values and spits in the face of conventionality by burning and tearing-up his own money.

MarthaLavey-JakeCohen How does this family move forward as one when they all desire to walk in different paths? Can their love for one another overcome their differences in values?

Bridget Carpenter has written a creative story that captures the details of an average American family and brings to stage the struggles that occur as the demands of family life take precedent over one’s individual dreams and what to do when your life partner does not choose the same path as yourself as you mature. Each character’s situation in the play and their personality are used to explore the different viewpoints, and the direction that they desire to go.

tony-hernandez-tightropewalker The director, Anna D. Shapiro, does a fantastic job as usual taking the time to develop each character and constructing a performance that uses the details in the dialogue and the ability of the actors to capture the emotional states of their characters to build the turmoil this family is going through.

The end of the play might leave you a little lost as to what just happened to Walter, although the symbolism of the French tight-rope walker Philippe Petit (Tony Hernandez) being incorporated in the final scene points the audience in the direction of what is taking place on stage.

Rating: «««

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre
1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650
Through: August 23rd
Ticket Prices: $20-$70
For tickets and info: http://www.steppenwolf.org

A scene from Up featuring ensemble member Ian Barford with Lauren Katz

A select scene from Up featuring ensemble member Ian Barford with Tony Hernandez.

 

After the fold: Info regarding Steppenwolf’s Up, including all creators and personnel involved with the production, can be found after the jump (click on “read more”). Also an informative video featuring playwright Bridget Carpenter, explaining her inspirations for Up.

Continue reading