Review: Man from Nebraska (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

Broad collection of fervent scenes doesn’t quite make a whole

  
  

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Sam Perry (Bud)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Man From Nebraska
 
Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Andrew Jessop
at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre has pulled off wonders within the confines of its black box theater space, such as morphing into a cheerfully bland New York hotel lobby with Lobby Hero (our review ★★★½) or, for their production of The Pillowman (review ★★), a claustrophobic interrogation room adjoined by macabre mini-theaters at both ends. But they may have bit off more than they can chew staging Tracy Letts’ 2003 play Man From Nebraska. Stephen H. Carmody’s set design does all it can with movable stages that serve for car and hotel scenes; Christopher Burpee’s lighting design can be impressively transformative at the right moments; Andrew Jessop’s video provides sly and suggestive white noise when the television becomes an extra character in a scene. Still, the play’s stop-and-start shifts are hell for any director to draw a cohesive arc from. Though Jessop’s direction Adrian Snow (Tamyra), Andrew J. Pond (Harry), Chuck Spencer (Ken)crafts gorgeous, singular jewels with each theatrical moment, it cannot ameliorate the overriding fragmentary nature of Letts’ writing, which seems more relevant for the screen than the stage.

Only one abiding element comes close to binding the production—Chuck Spencer’s performance, authentic to the bones, as Ken Carpenter, a man who awakens in the middle of the night to question everything he once held true. Jan Ellen Graves provides quiet backup as Ken’s sorely tested helpmeet, Nancy, but the show remains Spencer’s in every way. One could consider his portrayal of Ken as the bookend to his 2009 triumph as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (review). He seems born to play the quintessential life of quiet desperation.

The opening scenes do everything to depict Ken and Nancy’s somnambulant routines and corn-fed complacency, right down to silently shared dinners over chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes. But then Ken’s midnight crisis of faith hits hard and stands in abrupt, violent contrast to everything that’s gone before. Ken, Baptist born and raised, realizes to his horror that he does not believe in God–Spenser successfully sells every raw moment of Ken’s lifetime of belief pulled out from underneath him.

The rest of the play Ken searches for what he truly believes in; how various people respond to his earnest and heartfelt quest eventually reflects more on them than the protagonist. Small theatrical moments shine with humor, veracity, warm simplicity, yet sometimes we are never really far from a sharp Lettsian edge. Chuck Spencer (Ken), Marssie Mencotti (Cammie)Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) proves to be as cheerfully vapid and materialistic a clergyman as Satan could ever send to test the faithful, yet it is on his recommendation that Ken take a vacation that shapes his quest. Equally, daughter Ashley (Julie Dahlinger) seems too caught up in the things of this world to ever understand her father’s driven personal inquiry. In worldly company, Ken seems like an oddity—the guy who cares too much about spiritual matters that everyone else has let go of long ago.

Spencer is up to giving a performance that makes Ken more than an accidental tourist in the realms of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, the script itself doesn’t plumb the depths of Ken’s emotional or spiritual quest but leaves a lot of it inchoate. Furthermore, the play’s fragmentary nature makes it difficult to tie in Ken’s search for truth with what is going on with Nancy at home. So many actors give strong and mature performances, it’s a shame that the whole struggles to gel. It’s worth it just to go and view the production as an assortment of excellent scenes in the hands of sure and capable craftsmen. Certainly, Ken and Nancy’s powerful reunion will stays long after the show is over. But, all in all, we have to accept Man From Nebraska as a lesser work of Chicago’s currently most successful playwright.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Man From Nebraska continues through April 24th at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $27 on Fridays and Sundays, and $30 on Saturdays, and can be bought online or by calling 773-728-7529.  Reserve seats by e-mailing reserve@redtwist.org.

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy), Chuck Spencer (Ken)

Jane deLaubenfels (Pat), Chuck Spencer (Ken) Chuck Spencer (Ken), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy)
  

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REVIEW: Lobby Hero (Redtwist Theatre)

     
     

Redtwist’s near-perfect lesson on late-night discretion

     
     

  Andrew Jessop (Jeff), Eric Hoffmann (Bill), Maura Kidwell (Dawn)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Lobby Hero
   
Written by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by
Keira Fromm
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre’s Lobby Hero, under the direction of Keira Fromm, is so organic, natural and spot-on in its shifting moods and comic timing, you’re guaranteed to get that fly-on-the-wall feeling from start to finish. Step into this lobby’s peachy and cheerfully bland environ, complete with Christmas tchotchkes, and you might be fooled into proceeding to the elevator. Picture window exposure of the street lends even greater veritas, especially when actors playing police officers have to contend with joggers, shoppers and curious passers-by for sidewalk space.

 Maura Kidwell (Dawn), Andrew Jessop (Jeff)At least for the night shift, this is the domain of the doorman, Jeff (Andrew Jessop), a fairly sweet slacker dude with a sharp sense of the ridiculous, helplessly coupled to a real motor-mouth problem. Of course, it doesn’t help that Jeff’s easy-going nature leads others to confide in him beyond the normal boundaries of discretion–so perhaps speaking before thinking isn’t just Jeff’s shortcoming. But, much like a bartender, being the late night guy who’s there to talk to puts Jeff in the crossfire between his boss William (Michael Pogue) and two beat cops, Bill (Eric Hoffman) and Dawn (Maura Kidwell).

Jessop doesn’t hit a wrong note in his blithe portrayal of Jeff’s affable lack of boundaries or appropriateness. One hardly knows if he decided in his youth on a policy of truth or if he simply can’t help compulsively saying what he thinks. Yet, whether he’s revealing his sexual fantasies to William or telling Dawn how much he wishes he had Bill’s overweening self-assurance, so that he could get away with the asshole stuff Bill gets away with, it becomes quite clear that Jeff has no sense of where he is, who he is talking to or what the ramifications of his speech could be.

So it is that Kenneth Lonergan’s humorous, quicksilver script flows easily and smoothly from this cast, with Jeff centered directly at its funny bone. But Jeff also sits at the center of peril once William, who Pogue plays with wound-tight perfection, confides to Jeff that his brother may have been involved in a terrible crime and now wants William to provide him with an alibi.

Michael Pogue (William), Andrew Jessop (Jeff)If William’s secret were Jeff’s to bear alone, there might not be any problem. But as police partners Bill and Dawn, Hoffman and Kidwell convincingly convey a menacing police presence–even as they humorously fuck up their own relationship. Kidwell’s Dawn may be a baby on the force, but she already has the intractable bearing of a cop who can commit violence in one minute and excuse it the next. Bill, for his part, works like the Mafia, backing up William’s dubious alibi for his brother at the precinct solely as a way to implicitly gain favors. One of the other comic highlights of this production is how Hoffman delivers Bill’s bad-cop excuses with stalwart conviction.

Kidwell generates laughs simply by playing an impeccable straight woman in Dawn’s growing relationship with Jeff. But Jeff hardly knows with whom he is dealing as he flirts with Dawn or wisecracks at Bill. By the end of the play, he learns full well just how little power he has in this dynamic. Lobby Hero relies upon ever-shifting circumstances to underline the ambiguity of making moral choices. Basically it comes down to this: when can the little guy tell the truth? When it’s safe for him to tell it. It’s a hard lesson in discretion to learn. No doubt, other late-night guys have had to learn it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Maura Kidwell (Dawn), Andrew Jessop (Jeff), Eric Hoffmann (Bill)

  

Lobby Hero runs: Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat, Sun, 7:30pm through Sunday, January 2nd.
Please Note: There are no performances on 12/24, 12/25, 12/26, 12/31, 1/1. There are no matinees.   Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, includes one intermission.

  
  

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