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: Eclipsed (Northlight Theatre)

  
  

Fighting for decency, if not dignity

  
  

Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Eclipsed
  
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Hallie Gordon
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Written in 2009 and featuring an all-female cast, this trenchantly topical drama brings to death—and life—the Liberian civil war as seen—and, more crucially, felt–by its most blatant victims/victors. These are women, specifically the four “wives” of a rebel officer in 2003. All but imprisoned in a compound in Bomi County, these polygamous Penelope Walker (Rita) and Alana Arenas (Helena) - Eclipsed at Northlightspouses of a commander of the LURD faction have managed to find a “separate peace” despite the bloodshed and the loss of everything that used to be normal.

Their survival strategies suggest many more coping mechanisms than the specific stories of four wives and the female peacekeeper who visits their bastion to offer them a way out. Hallie Gordon’s powerfully present staging keeps it so real (alas, even in the accents) that the intermission seems a rude reminder that it’s a play after all.

Helena (Alana Arenas, with the dignity of a demigoddess) is the #1 wife, too comfortable in her lockstep reliance on the unseen “husband.” Tamberla Perry is fire and fury as Maima, the second concubine, who has become a soldier in her warlord’s band and finds in her rifle the only strength she can muster in this misogynistic mess of an army camp. As Rita, the constantly pregnant third member of the harem, Penelope Walker finds a kind of security in her sheer fecundity.

As “The Girl,” the newest wife (#4) and still virtually a girl, Paige Collins is heartbreaking as the most innocent victim. Gradually this recruit, who entertains the others by being able to read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (to them, his #2 wife), is seduced by Maima into becoming a killer herself, looting clothes and jewelry from the unfortunate bystanders she exploits. She can no longer remember what her mother looked like but, clinging to what memories remain, renames herself “Mother’s Blessing” as a kind of reflexive homage.

Finally, there’s Bessie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), the odd woman out. An educated business woman searching for her missing daughter, she is now a
Red Cross peacekeeper who’s trying to broker a cease fire with the constantly shifting rebel factions. More directly, she offers the women a chance to remember their past—before rapes and murders became a way of death—and even contemplate a future.

        
Leslie Ann Sheppard (seated), Alana Arenas (standing) - Eclipsed Paige Collins (The Girl) in Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed 2
Paige Collins, Alana Arenas, Tamberla Perry, Leslie Ann Sheppard - Eclipsed Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alana Arenas, Paige Collins - Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre

Interestingly, it’s only at the end of Eclipsed, when the rebels’ sour victory against the thuggish Charles Taylor (currently being tried for war crimes and human rights abuses) leads to a king of peace that we even learn the real names of these interrupted lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch these four “Mother Courages” give up all spousal rivalries, break their wartime habits, and try to assume something like civilian lives. (well, not all succeed.)

What are they fighting for? They never really know. What matters is the sisterly solidarity that compensates for so much austerity and adversity. The sheer range of the characterizations never registers more than in the scene where, stage right, Maima is showing The Girl how to shoot a gun, while, on the other side, Bessie teaches Helena how to write the letter “A” in the sand.

So much of humanity lies between the literal sides of this stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alana Arenas, Penelope Walker, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Paige Collins - Eclipsed

Extra Credit:

     
     

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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.

        
        

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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★★★★)

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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: ★★★★

 

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