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: Detroit (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Great characters and a plot that fails to ignite

 

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
Detroit
     
Written by Lisa D’Amour
Directed by Austin Pendleton

at Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 7   |   tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Detroit is an example of a production with great direction and  top-drawer performances. It is also, unfortunately, a play defined by four characters in search of a plot. The less said about the fifth member of the cast – whose rambling, tacked-on epilogue is one sorry excuse for an ending – the better.

(left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kate Arrington and Kevin Anderson in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s tale of a subdivision in decline is all mood and little matter, which is to say there’s no story here, just a series of vignettes that provide character sketches of four dysfunctional suburbanites, none of whom changes during the 100-minute production. Yes, there’s major materialistic loss for half of the foursome on stage. Despite that, the characters of Detroit end up pretty much in the same place where they started. Were it not for director Austin Pendleton‘s killer cast – Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington and Ian BarfordDetroit would be a complete non-starter.

The titular city is never mentioned. Life-size tract houses (literally within spitting distance of each other) fill the stage in Kevin Depinet’s meticulously detailed set (right down to leaves decaying in long-neglected gutters). They could be just outside any city in the U.S. – which may be the point. Josh Schmidt’s sound design – chirping birds, drowned out by the drone of distant traffic zooming by on some anonymous highway – indicate a suburban locale with a decidedly urban emphasis. Urban – in this case – doesn’t mean gleaming skyscrapers or city-dwelling sophisticates.  Detroit unfolds in a place of borderline shabbiness and barely-concealed desperation. Nothing quite works as it should here, not the malfunctioning patio umbrella that turns a backyard barbeque into a small disaster, and not grill master Ben (Barford), struggling to create an online business after being laid off from his job in a bank.

At curtain up, Ben and his wife Mary (Metcalf) are acting with enthusiastic good will, grilling steaks in a welcome-to-the-neighborhood cookout for newly moved in Sharon (Arrington) and Roger (Anderson).  On the surface, it’s a scene of All-American normalcy. But D’Amour’s dialogue keeps things on edge. People keep saying things that aren’t quite right, things that are in fact – the more you think on them – profoundly messed up. Mary, for all her smiling welcome, seems to be living on Planet Angry. Her words have an ugly sharpness that doesn’t jive with the graciously elaborate appetizers. Ben is living the American dream, an entrepreneur filled with ambition and smarts – except for the nagging question of how it is that somebody living on the margins of the nation’s economic pie can possibly succeed as a one-man financial planning enterprise.

 (counterclockwise from upper left) – Ensemble members Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Kevin Anderson and Laurie Metcalf in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson and Kate Arrington in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Sharon and Rob aren’t exactly Laura and Rob Petrie either. Sharon confides that she and Roger met in rehab, which is absolutely fine and dandy because they’re both obviously well on recovery’s road – employed, clear-eyed and  functional. It’s just a teensy bit odd that  they seem to own neither furniture nor a change of clothes. And  they do have intense, fond memories of a lost weekend in “Hotlanta”  that may or may not have involved free-basing meth. And Sharon cries a lot. And just one beer won’t hurt, not when your main problem has always been heroin, right? And that’s just the start of the kinks and quirks that pepper D’Amour’s  wonderful dialogue.

The problem with Detroit is that for all the marvelously rendered conversation, there’s no arc.  We get memorable scenes of memorable people talking – and eventually yelling and dirty dancing and recklessly playing with matches -  but there’s never anything much at stake. In the end, half of the foursome on stage simply vanishes. You certainly don’t need closure to create a successful drama, but you do need some sort of structure. Detroit, in the end, feels both static and incomplete.

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. What makes it worth seeing are the performances of four Steppenwolf ensemble members, each one at the top of their game. Metcalf, especially, brings a wild-eyed, dangerously suppressed rage to Mary. There’s something feral about her, and when that something boils over during a backyard barbeque-turned-Bacchanal, Metcalf puts on the crazy pants and turns them up to stun. Barford is equally effective in a quieter way, capturing the sad-sack weariness of a stay-at-home non-starter who has been out of the work force long enough to lose his spirit, maybe for good.  Arrington nails the E-Z Cheez ethos of a white-trash crackhead whacktress with a heart of gold while Anderson channels his inner eighth grade caveman as a good guy  who is a profoundly bad influence.

As for Robert Brueler‘s late-in-the-game appearance, it’s only tolerable because it’s relatively brief. I spent the first half of his expository  monologue trying to figure out what he was saying – enunciation isn’t Brueler’s strong suit – and the last half wishing he’d just wrap it up already.  There’s one reason to see Detroit, and that’s for the fearsome foursome of Arrington, Barford, Anderson and Metcalf. It’s just too bad they don’t have more to do.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

        
        

Continue reading

REVIEW: A Parallelogram (Steppenwolf Theatre)

An astonishing message from the future

       
  

Parallelogram-1

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
A Parallelogram
  
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
at
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $50  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

Forgive me, but I am going to use a cliché blurb: If you only see one play this year, see Steppenwolf Theatre’s A Parallelogram.

I know. You might be put off by the title. But I swear, this is not a dramatic telling of geometric principles. It is partly a lesson in physics, but really it’s more of an existentialist drama with a science fiction tinge. Like, have you ever wondered what it  would be like if Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut got together over a bottle of whiskey and hashed out a play? Well, this is that play.

Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 09 Written by Bruce Norris—a Steppenwolf regular whose other works include We All Went Down to Amsterdam and The Pain and the Itch, among others—the play tells the tale of Bee (Kate Arrington), a woman who was the other woman to Jay (Tom Irwin) before he left his wife for her. They live in an unremarkable home with a pool and a backyard, which is cared for by JJ (Tim Bickel), the friendly Guatemalan landscaper.

At the top of the play, Jay lectures Bee about smoking in the house. The only problem is, Bee doesn’t smoke. Enter the other Bee (Marylouise Burke) who watches this action from a place that is beyond time. She is Bee from the future and is visible and audible to young Bee only. Sitting in a chair stage left, she smokes and fills up on Oreos while providing her own personal commentary.

How is it possible for Bee to see herself from the future? Although we as the audience must suspend our disbelief, we do get an explanation. Time, as we know it, is merely a construction of the human mind. Therefore, the moment you are born and the moment you die are the exact same moment. Taken a step further, these moments are happening right now and will happen now forever. Add to this Einstein’s theory of the universe and that parallel lines if extended to infinity would eventually intersect, and you have the answer. Okay. So it’s a little confusing. But does it matter?

Younger Bee wants the Future Bee to tell her about her life. Future Bee obliges, even using a special remote control to give Younger Bee the chance to change the present in order to influence the future. But as Future Bee continually iterates, you may be able to alter the short term, but the long term is pretty much set.

There’s also tension due to Younger Bee’s dwindling sanity, her inability to have children and a disease that threatens to wipe out the human race. It’s definitely a lot to cram into one play, but Norris is a master of economy. He consistently manages to give a scene or a conversation just the right amount of time, his pacing is impeccable and he can tie together disparate elements in a way that makes perfect sense.

 

Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 01 Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 03
Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 05 Steppewolf Theatre - A Parallelogram 07

The acting is phenomenal. You can feel the audience get giddy every time Burke opens her mouth. She plays Future Bee with a rare sort of comedic brashness. When she breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, it plays like a George Carlin stand-up routine.

Arrington pulls us into her character, making us feel the pain of knowing, knowing how relationships will end and knowing how people will die. And Irwin makes a great sympathetic jerk who wonders if his future-seeing girlfriend is God’s punishment for his past infidelities.

Director Anna Shapiro knows this material well. She comes at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieves the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play

And although I don’t often comment on it, the set design is amazing. A Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.

If you don’t already have your tickets, get them now. But then again, what is now? And if you are going to see it, doesn’t that mean you’ve already seen it or that you are seeing it right now? Who knows? Whatever the case may be, go see this play.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

 

       

      
     

 

Continue reading

Steppenwolf Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

 

Explores theme of “public/private self”

 

34th Season Kick-Off Celebration by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-2011 Season

 

We live in public space. We live in private space. What happens when the door between them opens? Our public/private self. It’s an animating tension in each of us. A landscape both familiar and strange. Home to our darkness and our brilliance. Steppenwolf’s 2010-2011 season: five stories that navigate the fluid borders of our public/private self and illuminate the mysterious ways each acts upon the other.

 

  Detroit
  a new play by Lisa D’Amour
featuring Kate Arrington and Robert Breuler 
September 9 – November 7, 2010

 

  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  by Edward Albee
directed by Pam MacKinnon
featuring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
December 2, 2010 – February 6, 2011

 

  Sex with Strangers
  by Laura Eason
directed by Jessica Thebus
featuring Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush
January 20 – May 15, 2011

 

  The Hot L Baltimore
  by Lanford Wilson
directed by Tina Landau
featuring Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, Yasen Peyankov
March 24 – May 29, 2011

 

  Middletown
  by Will Eno
directed by Les Waters
featuring Alana Arenas
June 16 – August 14, 2011

 

steppenwolfAbout Steppenwolf: Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights, Steppenwolf’s mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.  The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on-going group work.  Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of 42 artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting and textual adaptation. For additional information, visit www.steppenwolf.org, www.facebook.com/SteppenwolfTheatre and www.twitter.com/SteppenwolfThtr

Season subscriptions go on-sale to the public on Wednesday, March 10 at 11 a.m. Subscription Series packages start at $135.  Dinner/Theatre and Wine Series packages are also available.  To purchase a 2010-2011 subscription, contact Audience Services at 1650 N. Halsted, (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

 

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)