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 Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

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TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

FarnsworthInvention_178 FarnsworthInvention_248

Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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Review: Artistic Home’s “Days to Come”

  The Artistic Home Shows Weaknesses, Not Strengths, of Days To Come

 

DTC02_Firth after fight

The Artistic Home presents:

Days To Come

by Lillian Hellman
directed by Kathy Scambiatterra
thru November 29th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.         — Lillian Hellman

DTC06_Wilke and Easter Is it possible to be too reverential while executing a particular work? True, Days To Come was written by the larger-than-life Lillian Hellman. In it, tragic things happen, lives are irreparably damaged, and the play is full of social import. All the same it is still a melodrama, not a tragedy. One’s impression upon seeing it onstage now at The Artistic Home is that director Kathy Scambiatterra has seriously mistaken one for the other.

This is not to write off Days To Come as a lesser Hellman work and I hope no one reads my use of “melodrama” in any pejorative way. Melodrama is an extremely versatile, complex, and enduring genre. One for which, as the above quotation shows, Hellman had immense respect. Most of all, more often than not, melodrama is intensely personal. In the end, Days To Come is about the very personal costs of falling for fast, slipshod, and cutthroat solutions to both personal and larger social problems.

Artistic Home’s production succeeds most when it fulfills the melodramatic mode of the play—as it does in those scenes centering on the strikebreakers/thugs hired by the Rodman family to disrupt the ongoing strike at their factory. Scenes where Mossie (Eustace Allen) and Joe (Jeremy Glickstein) play cards while they “guard” the Rodman house build with crackling intensity; while Wilke (Gerard Jamroz) their boss oozes criminality out of every pore. Jamroz absolutely shines in this role—coy, sleazy, and unctuous when he needs to be; pouring on coarse brutality when it serves. His performance almost steals the play.

In fact, Hellman’s criminals seem to come from the pen of her lifetime partner, Dashiell Hammet. But then, they had been together for five years by the time Days To Come premiered.

DTC04_Julie and Henry DTC03_Julie and Andy

In stark contrast, Scambiaterra chooses to keep the rest of her cast buttoned down until the final scene. Sadly, what goes missing is a sense of history between all characters and a strong ensemble sensibility between cast members. Plus, direction during the first act often seems as stilted as some of the dialogue; the actors often look like chess pieces moved around upon a board than people inhabiting a living room.

Patrick Raynor as Tom Firth, the working class best friend of Andrew Rodman (Joe McCauley), brings refreshing intensity upon his entrance into the family hothouse environment. Tim Patrick Miller, as the labor organizer Jim Whalen, brings a nice touch of Humphrey Bogart toughness to his role, even if some lines bring him dangerously close to sounding like a pompous white knight.

Once the strike devolves into violence, Scambiaterra’s direction finally unleashes the cast in a big family blow-up, a dramatic impact lessened by the lack of any reasonable foreshadowing. Still, the biggest, most enjoyable scene-stealer is Justine Serino as Cora, venting her jealous rage at philandering sister-in-law Julie (Leavey Ballou).

It’s here Joe McCauley’s role as the family scion, Andrew Rodman, finally comes into its own—and it’s a palpable relief when it does. His character’s trajectory veers the closest to tragedy. What is not clear is whether, at the start of the play, he realized that he could lose the town that he loved the most through his own passivity. If Hellman’s writing does not make that clear, then the actor must make that choice—as if the whole world of this play depends upon it.

Rating: ★★½

 

DTC01_Whalen waiting for pick-up DTC05_Julie and Whalen

 

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