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: Samuel J. and K. (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

Steppenwolf Young Adults feature plays it loose with plausibility, plot

  
  

Cliff Chamberlain and Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Samuel J. and K.
   
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through March 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s no shortage of local shout-outs in director Ron OJ Parson’s Naperville-based family drama. Its dialogue makes generous references to landmark spots and (much to the amusement of the opening morning’s audience) a neighboring rivalry. In promotional materials, playwright and suburban native Mat Smart suggests elements of the play are semi-biographical. The Young Adults presentation will play to many teens who directly relate to its characters and their circumstances. This play wants to be relevant, and wants to be real.

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.Its themes—identity, fate, racial definition, nature vs. nurture, brotherly love—are. So why do the stakes in Samuel J. and K. feel so low? And its story, lacking in authenticity?

Before adopted, black Samuel K. (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) walks to receive his college diploma, he and his older white brother Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) indulge in a family tradition down at the basketball court. Too eager to wait, reaction-snap-cam in-hand, J. halts the game and begs K. to open his gift envelope; it contains two expensive, non-refundable, unsolicited and unwanted tickets to J.’s birth city in Cameroon.

Before the first pick-up game is over, the inciting argument comes to a head.

It’s also the audience’s first cue for a small suspension of disbelief: these Sams love each other and are close enough to talk smack and hip-check each other into chain link fences, but they’ve never had the adoptive ‘where is home really’ talk before? At that age? Having not yet built an understanding of the brothers’ dynamic, we’re launched into an issues talk before the relationship study has gotten a chance to get off the ground.

No sooner than we can ponder the implications of the gift or the risk of the trip are we whisked away to a mosquito net-lined bed in Africa—on the last day of the vacation.

Points where one would expect build—the inevitable second discussion (there had to have been more than one), the anxieties leading up to the trip, the arrival—are skipped over, making room for barely conceivable twists, including a borderline absurd subplot involving a mutual romantic interest. It’s a limp, manipulative device seemingly employed for no other purpose than to conjure a requisite “you’re not my real brother!”

Chamberlain makes do with his character’s under-supported choices, lending credibility to some of the play’s more outlandish ideas. As K., Roberson, Jr. has the tendency to over act, the perception of which is compounded by the valleys and holes in Smart’s script.

Lacking enough logic to create dramatic build, Samuel J. and K. is a two-man show in which the eponymous characters remain elusive. What are audiences—young or old—supposed to glean from that?

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
  
 

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REVIEW: Sex With Strangers (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

The perils of blogging while shagging

  
  

Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Sex With Strangers
   
Written by Laura Eason
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Steppenwolf Theatre’s remount of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, which enjoyed its first success during their 2009 First Look Repertory of New Work, is framed as another installment in their seasonal exploration of the public and private self. Now if only Eason’s play had the depth and strength to take on that weighty mantle. As is, Sex with Strangers is a nice and gentle play about an older generation’s discomfort with a younger generation, their new technological toys, and the exponential expansion of sexual frankness as the result of those toys. The play might “spark dialogue” about where the private self has gone in this internet age but it will hardly give body, clarity or insight to that discussion.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.As a result, the play is rather tepid and pleasant but just as easily forgettable. Shy, neurotic and old-school novel writer Olivia (Brenda Barrie for our performance) runs into brash, young, self-promoting blogger Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush) at a writer’s retreat. She’s completing her second novel many years after her first and Ethan, who’s compiled his blog of sexual exploits into a bestselling book, has arrived to work on the screenplay for which he already has a Hollywood contract. The scenario is set for seduction—something the audience can see coming a mile away. But Olivia’s seduction isn’t just about booty calls or–what’s that old 70s phrase? The “zipless fuck”? Olivia is introduced, through Ethan, to the whole world of blogging, social media, and no longer relying upon the gatekeepers, i.e., critics, or those dinosaur editors of print publishing.

It’s sad that we don’t get to know these characters beyond their types. Sadder still is that the chemistry between Barrie and Grush is just not believable. Their relationship has be to set up fast so that the rest of the play can continue—one accepts their sexual interaction just to let the story unfold—but by far there isn’t enough of an instantaneous connection of passion between them to make their relationship credible. Grush is a dynamic actor who gives Ethan’s impetuousness and arrogance the right balance of self-effacing candor. Barrie, meanwhile, has the nuance to convey Olivia’s introverted low self-esteem down pat, but missing is Olivia’s sexual, as well as intellectual, allure. If Olivia is the kind of character who only reveals herself on the page, it’s no wonder that even after the first act she seems a kind of cipher.

So far all the you-know-the-internet/I-don’t-know-the-internet stuff is concerned, that’s really just fluff on top of a much older kind of story about the fickle nature of fame and success, about the envy that springs up between friends over who is making it in their careers and who isn’t, about who has more power in the relationship and who doesn’t. While this is the real dynamic of Ethan and Olivia’s relationship, it’s one in which the characters sleepwalk their way through, never pausing to observe themselves, what they are doing with each other or why.

Plus, Sex with Strangers sets up a strange dichotomy between what’s old and young but then fails to examine that dichotomy or whether it’s even valid.

Stephen Louis Grush and Sally Murphy in 'Sex with Strangers' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Ethan falls in love with Olivia in part because of the excellence of her writing. So, the older writer is associated with excellence while Ethan’s blog is emblematic of flash-in-the-pan dreck that gets rewarded with fame and success. Missing from the play’s interrogation is any recollection of old school pulp novelists and young, excellent, intelligently written blogs—or intelligent blogs written by oldsters. Gone is any acknowledgement that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of writers old and young out there who may be every bit as talented, if not more, than the august Olivia—not all of them are going to get publishing contracts, even with a blog to promote their work.

The simplicity of Eason’s set-up is also her play’s downfall. No doubt, many in the audience will find her dialogue humorous and enjoyable, but whether this play will be remembered more than the usual date movie rom-com is anyone’s guess.

  
  
Rating ★★½
  
  

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Top 25 Chicago Plays of 2010

Abagail's Party - A Red Orchid Theatre Ian Westerfer as Baal at TUTA Theatre '1001' - Collaboraction Andrew Carter and Terry Hamilton - Frost-Nixon at Timeline Theatre Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre Awake and Sing at Porchlight - Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold
Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook Anton Chekhov's 'The Seagull' - Goodman Theatre streetcar named desire - tennessee williams - writers theatre To Master The Art - Timeline Theatre Chicago Brother-Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre - Tarell Alvin McCraney Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf - Steppenwolf Theatre
About Face Theatre presents 'Float' hot mikado - andy lupp, todd kryger, stephen schellhardt - Drury Lane Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union Hey Dancin - Factory Theater Liz Hoffman in Last Night of Ballyhoo The Illusion - Kushner - Court Theatre
My Brother's Keeper - Black Ensemble Theatre "Memory" by the Backstage Theatre Company Mimesophobia - Theatre Seven - by Carlos Murillo "Oleanna" by David Mamet - American Theater Company The Water Engine: An American Fable - by David Mamet.  Picture: Charles Lang and George Zerante from Theatre Seven Geoff Packard as Candide in Goodman Theatre's 'Candide', music by Leonard Bernstein, directed by Mary Zimmerman
"Scorched" by Wajdi Mouawad - Silk Road Theatre Project "Side Man" by Lauren Rawitz at Metroplis Performing Arts Centre "The Tallest Man" at Artistic Home Haff, the Man - Falling Girl - Zarko Theatre - photo by Laura Montenegro Tad in the 5th City - MPAACT Chicago Sarah Rose Graber in 'Book of Liz' - Chemically Imbalanced Comedy

 

Top 25 Chicago Productions of 2010

(in alphabetical order)

All told, Chicago Theater Blog covered an astounding 508 shows in 2010—proving without a doubt that this town is truly a non-stop theater machine! Whittling 500 shows down to the year’s top 25 productions was not an easy task, but we think this list illuminates what makes Chicago such a dynamic place to perform and create – a mix of works produced by small storefront companies all the way up to large Equity houses.

So, without further ado, here – listed alphabetically – are the top 25 productions of 2010:

 

   
Collaboraction 1001 - Chicago Theater Blog
1001


Collaboraction (Sept 2010)
Written by Jason Grote
Directed by Seth Bockley
our review 

“The Arabian Nights” are replayed in a near-futuristic setting, taking place in the belly of New York City’s underground tunnels after a nuclear blast. Says reviewer Oliver Sava, “Grote masterfully intertwines the various story threads, bleeding slapstick comedy, relationship drama, political criticism, and post-modern philosophy together to create a play that defies categorization.”. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called the play “savvy, self-aware and adroit at noting the power of myth in generations of sectarian strife . . .” and Monica Westin of New City noted, “It’s almost impossible to overstate the wit, fluidity and complexity . . .” of the production. (our review)

 

   
Abagail's Party - A Red Orchid Theatre
Abagail’s Party

A Red Orchid Theatre  (Feb 2010)
Written by
Mike Leigh
Directed by Shade Murray
our review

A Red Orchid Theatre brought out some of their best ensemble work for Mike Leigh’s class-conscious play about stifled lives in 1970s English suburbia. Director Shade Murray lovingly crafted middle class malaise out of Leigh’s caustic script, while Kirsten Fitzgerald lit the torch as Beverly–leading the tight and superb cast in a reckless, discontented charge to mutual destruction. As Susan, Natalie West “essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent . . . she becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.” (our review)

 

   
Awake and Sing at Porchlight - Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold
Awake and Sing

Northlight Theatre  (Feb 2010)
By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
our review

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.  From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why, especially considering Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama. The play stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.  As director, Steppenwolf’s Amy Morton adeptly paced the show, no doubt helped with a top-knotch cast, including seasoned performers Cindy Gold, Peter Kevoian, Mike Nussbaum and Jay Whittaker.    (our review)

 

   
Ian Westerfer as Baal at TUTA Theatre
Baal


TUTA Theatre (May 2010)
Written by
Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Zeljko Djukic
our review

TUTA Theatre will remount its very successful production of Brecht’s The Wedding this February. However, their stronger tour de force was the young Brecht’s very first play, Baal, which explored the rise and fall of the ultimate rebel artist. Assisted by a brilliantly clean and powerful translation by Peter Tegel, director Zeljko Djukic and cast executed a searing interrogation of the subversive artist as pop idol, while at the same time delivering to audiences a wildly intuitive and anarchic performance by Ian Westerfer in the title role. An exactingly cohesive ensemble cast matched Westerfer moment-to-moment, composing the perfect Petri dish for pre-Nazi cynicism, cruelty and decadence. Josh Schmidt’s original music contemporized and rounded out the mood and atmosphere for the piece. (See our review here.) Tom Williams of Chicago Critic called the production “refreshingly inventive as it swiftly blends drama with raw sensuality . . . demonstrates what the power of dedicated artists can produce once they are in creative sync.” Albert Williams of the Reader called Baal “a vivid, dreamlike work of stage poetry.”  (our review)

   
Sarah Rose Graber in Book of Liz - Chemically Imbalanced Comedy Chicago

 

The Book of Liz

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (Sept 2010)
Written by
Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
our review

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy had a huge success with The Book of Liz, so much so that it was extended numerous times, and is still running well into 2011. The show, written by Amy and David Sedaris, concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as “The Squeamish”. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. In this hilarious production, Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful when using the tight space, managing to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment. The Book of Liz stayed true to the Sedaris spirit, and fortunately did not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. (our review)

   
Brother-Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre - Tarell Alvin McCraney
Brother/Sister Plays
 

Steppenwolf Theatre (Feb 2010)
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
our review  |  photo album

McCraney’s much-anticipated Chicago debut at Steppenwolf did not disappoint. Indeed, concisely paired with Tina Landau’s sparse and enigmatic Viewpoints direction, the triptych of In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet formed a breathtaking mythic and generational through-line that consistently transcended time and space. To be a young playwright mentioned along with August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tony Kushner must be quite a heady experience. But Steppenwolf’s production—teaming with sterling performances by Jaqueline Williams, K. Todd Freeman, Philip James Brannon and Glenn Davis—shows that sometimes you can absolutely believe the hype. Barry Eitel’s review (see here) affirms Chicago’s critical consensus that “McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.”  (our review)

   
Candide - Goodman Theatre - Hollis Resnick and Lauren Molina
Candide

Goodman Theatre (Sept 2010)
Adapted from
Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler 
Music by Leonard Bernstein, et.al.
Directed by
Mary Zimmerman
our review 

Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a  separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production. “Thanks to director Zimmerman’s affinity for levity,” said our own Keith Ecker, “Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible. (our review)

 

   
float-about-face-theatre
FLOAT 

About Face Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by Patricia Kane
Directed by
Leslie Buxbum Danzig 
our review 

About Face Theatre overcame the pitfalls of preciousness that come when presenting a Christmas story about five women with Minnesota-nice written all over them. Members of a Midwest women’s society, they gather in a barn to create the annual Christmas float. What could have devolved into Hallmark card caricature actually resulted in honest emotional plumbing of their lives, conflicts and pressures. Director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig kept the pace brisk while the cast molded complex and full-figured characters out of Patricia Kane’s witty script. FLOAT became the new fresh face in a holiday theater season stuffed to the gills with the same old fruitcake. (our review)

 

 
Andrew Carter and Terry Hamilton - Frost-Nixon at Timeline Theatre
Frost/Nixon
 

Timeline Theatre (Aug 2010)
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Louis Contey
our review

A reclusive, disgraced ex-president squares off against a glib playboy talk show host in a televised battle for public approval. TimeLine’ Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon inventively captured America right on the cusp–before reality TV but shortly after the boob tube emerged as the gladiatorial arena in which public figures are tried and tested. Terry Hamilton’s portrayal of the fallen Nixon impressed everyone with its grounded, humanistic veracity. Andrew Carter’s Frost signaled a smooth operator, fitting the jet-set mold of the period, yet heralding vacuous times ahead for civic discourse. Scenic designer Keith Pitts collaborated with projectionist Mike Tutaj to manifest the perfect facile realm for Louis Contey’s subtle and tense direction. (our review)

 

   
Haff, The Man - Falling Girl - Theatre Zarko - Michael Montenegro.
Haff, the Man/Falling Girl 

Theatre Zarko (Oct 2010)
Written by
Michael Montenegro
Directed by
Montenegro and Ellen O’Keefe
our review 

Master puppeteer Michael Montenegro and long-time creative partner Ellen O’Keefe created and directed two deeply evocative stories; one about a man trying to restore himself in order to begin a new life with a new love, another about a young girl dangerously desperate for the promising adventure that could be her life. An extremely dedicated and integrated troupe of puppeteers and performers executed Montenegro’s dreamlike dramatic creations, manifesting a fully realized, vivid revival of the Symbolist Theatre tradition. Sublime musical atmosphere directed by Jude Mathews backed up their efforts. The result was pure, unadulterated poetry for the child within the adult theatergoer. (our review)

 

   
Hey Dancin - Factory Theater
Hey! Dancin’! 

Factory Theater (March 2010)
by
Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer
directed by
Sarah Rose Graber
our review 

Hey! Dancin’! isn’t just a hair-brained ‘80s-inspired comedy. It’s also an effective satire on people’s perceptions of celebrity today. K.K. and his girlfriend Tanya see themselves as the center of the universe because they are on TV.—cable access—but TV nonetheless. Halle (Melissa Nedell) and Trisha (Catherine Dughi) give this notion weight since they are star-obsessed with these no-name nudniks. Yet as Halle gets to know the real K.K. (Jacob A. Ware), who admittedly dreams of being famous without actually ever wanting to hone any real talent, the image of these backwoods celebrities begins to crumble.  Says our own Keith Ecker: “The acting is brilliant. The comedic timing of most of the players is impeccable. I’ve seen countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows, and this rivals the best of them. Simon as the recovering alcoholic station manager is a scene-stealer with his Muppet-like voice and general awkwardness.”  (our review)

 

   
hot mikado - andy lupp, todd kryger, stephen schellhardt - Drury Lane
Hot Mikado 

Drury Lane Oakbrook (Aug 2010)
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by David Bell
our review 

Drury Lane Theatre tore it up with this jazz-age revival version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic. Lawrence Bommer raved that its music director Michael Mahler had a “period-perfect Midas touch” and that the production “sizzles with (director) David Bell’s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-step dances . . . the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force . . .”  Aurelia Williams brought the power as Katisha, while Stephen Schellhardt worked his comic chops, recalling Groucho Marx, Stephen Colbert, Keaton and Chaplin. All in all, Drury Lane’s production was a unmistakably riotous success heard all around the Chicagoland area.  (our review)

 

   
The Illusion - Kushner - Court Theatre
The Illusion 

Court Theatre  (March 2010)
Written by
Pierre Corneille
Adapted by Tony Kushner 
Directed by
Charles Newell 
our review  |  photo album

But for a few dramatic speed bumps between the romantic leads, Court Theatre pulled off a dense, ornately rich and multilayered dream world with Tony Kushner’s story-within-several-stories adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 400 year-old play. Charles Newell’s direction led the dance between reality and fantasy, while Collette Pollard’s set design established an delightfully uncanny magical realm. Chris Sullivan amazed as the magician, Alcandre, and Timothy Edward Kane roiled the audience with his comic portrayal of Matamore, the cowardly warrior. Barry Eitel declared the production an “uncommon delight” and a “triumph,” a love letter to the theater. (our review)

     
Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre
Killer Joe 

Profiles Theatre (Jan 2010)
Written by
Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
our review

Profiles Theatre pushed the envelope with Tracy Lett’s early play and gave audiences a sly, close, depraved and dangerous ride. Rick Snyder’s direction never stinted on its desolate Texas trailer-trash realism or let up on the work’s unrelenting dark humor and looming tension. Darrel Cox gave a killer performance as Killer Joe Cooper, hired by Chris (Kevin Bigley) to kill his birth mother for insurance money in order to pay off his debt to a drug dealer. Keith Ecker notes Cox’s facility to go “from southern gent to cold-blooded killer . . . all that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath.” Catey Sullivan observed that Profiles’ production was not for the faint of heart, yet its “blood-drenched, innocence-murdered gallows” humor in Snyder’s hands was “a thrilling piece of theater.” (our review)

   
Liz Hoffman in Last Night of Ballyhoo
The Last Night of Ballyhoo 

Project 891 Theatre (Nov 2010)
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
our review 

Project 891 created an intimate and emotionally mature depiction of a Jewish family of the American South right on the cusp of World War II and the Holocaust. Sort of fitting in, but not quite, informed by the culture surrounding them, yet set apart, director Jason W. Rost gently unraveled this family’s issues around identity, belonging and success at the Gunther Mansion (now known as the North Lakeside Cultural Center). Darrelyn Marx dominated as the matriarch Boo and Liz Hoffman generated much sympathy as her awkward daughter Lala. Winning and balanced performances from Sarah Latin-Kasper, Jason Kellerman, Lori Grupp, Larry Garner and Austin Oie rounded out the cast. (our review)

 

   
memory-backstage-theatre-photo-by-heath-hays
Memory 

BackStage Theatre  (Nov 2010)
Written and
Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by Matthew Reeder
our review  |  photo album

Director Matthew Reeder and cast evolved rich, enmeshed and powerful emotional journeys, from rehearsal process to fully realized production, from a woman’s struggle to tell the complete story of her traumatic survival of the Holocaust to a Palestinian’s story about his embattled and complex relationship with an Israeli soldier. Says Allegra Gallian of the Backstage Theatre’s production, “The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space . . . performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating us so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.” (our review)

 

   
Mimesophobia - Theatre Seven - Carlos Murillo
Mimesophobia 

Theatre Seven (March 2010)
Written by
Carlos Murillo
Directed by
Margot Bordelon 
our review 

Theatre Seven’s production crowned a season full of excellent deconstructive theatrical storytelling. Margot Bordelon’s driven and well-paced direction expertly juggled three storylines regarding the mysterious murder of a woman. Oliver Sava noted the savvy Brechtian distancing wrought by the intelligent cast and the emotional immediacy supplied by Cassy Sander’s performance. “Sanders brings vulnerability . . . her scenes are the most visceral of the production . . . Mimesophobia is a huge success for the young company and one of the more refreshing plays to land this season.” (our review)

 

   
My Brothers Keeper - Black Ensemble Theatre
My Brother’s Keeper 

Black Ensemble Theater  (March 2010)
Written by
Rubin D. Echoles 
Directed by
Jackie Taylor  
our review  |  photo album

Though light on storytelling, Black Ensemble Theatre’s recreation of the dancing career of the uber-talented Nicholas Brothers was as close to seeing the originals as audiences are bound to get. Jackie Taylor directed an exuberant production overflowing with swinging musical finesse and huge dancing talent. Rashawn Thompson and Rubin Echoles played Fayard and Harold Nicholas to Thomas “Tom Tom 84” Washington’s musical arrangements and Echoles’ choreography. Donald Barnes and Dawn Bless warmly rounded out the tale as the boys’ vaudeville-bound parents; Michael Bartlett and Rhonda Preston added showbiz flare and power as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Big Maybelle. All in all, the cast excelled in reviving the joy of pure, solid entertainment. (our review)

 

   
Speed-the-Plow by David Mamet - American Theater Company
Oleanna / Speed-the-Plow

American Theater Company (Sept 2010)
Written by David Mamet  
Directed by
Rick Snyder  
our review

American Theater Company scored big with two searing, back-to-back productions of David Mamet. Director Rick Snyder had a field day building a war between a student and professor over a slight, but fatal, misstep versus a showdown between big commercial movie business and art. Darrell W. Cox expertly worked his range between playing a slick, cut-throat producer in one and a smug, self-compromised liberal arts professor in the other. The difference between the two Mamet works may have been Nicole Lowrance’s sympathetic portrayal of Carol in Oleanna, which rang more truthful and well timed than her turn as Karen in Speed the Plow. All the same, Lance Baker oozed fierce sleazebag perfection in his role as Charlie Fox, bringing Plow to a devastating end. (our reviews here and here)

 

   
A Parallelogram by Bruce Norris - at Steppenwolf Theatre
A Parallelogram 

Steppenwolf Theatre (July 2010)
Written by
Bruce Norris
Directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
our review 

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. With this production it’s clear that Director Anna Shapiro knew this material well. She came at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieved the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play. Said our own Keith Ecker: “If you only see one play this year, see (this play).…the set design by Todd Rosenthal is amazing. …Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.”  (our review)

 

     
Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Ragtime
 

Drury Lane Theatre (April 2010)
Book by Terrance McNally
Music/Lyrics by
Flaherty and Ahrens 
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
our review  |  photo album

Other productions have lost focus and been crushed under the multiple layers and storylines of this musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel. Yet, Drury Lane, under Rachel Rockwell’s knowing direction, succeeded in taking its panoramic 19th century sweep and transforming it into a work that truly earns the word “epic.”  Brilliantly cast with Quentin Earl Darrington, Valisia LeKae, Cory Goodrich and Mark David Kaplan, Ragtime’s spare and fluid set design was offset by Santo Loquasto’s lush costuming for the strongest visual impact. John Beer of TimeOut Chicago recognized “this Ragtime yields a snapshot of a nation recognizably our own: dynamic, idealistic and terminally haunted by bigotry and fear.”  (our review)

 

   
Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad - Silk Road Theatre Project Scorched 

Silk Road Theatre Project  (Oct 2010)
Written by
Wajdi Mouawad  
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Dale Heinen   
our review 

Silk Road Theatre Project breathed life into a contemporary yet timeless tale of war, poverty, age-old gender inequities, lost family threads, and finding a restored sense of self out of the ashes. Dale Heinen’s direction brought all the suspense of a mystery thriller without sacrificing the emotional weight that gave the play the quality of a Classical Greek Tragedy or a war story out of Bible. Three actresses, Rinska M. Carrasco, Carolyn Hoerdemann and Diana Simonzadeh, convincingly played Nawal, the Middle Eastern mother who mysteriously stops speaking 5 years before her death and posthumously sends her twin children on a quest to find their father and brother. Adam Poss was riveting as Nihad—the pop music and celebrity obsessed jihadi sniper who becomes inextricably linked with their lives. The sterling production of this new work announced Wajdi Mouawad as a playwright to watch. (our review)

 

      
anton-chekhov-the-seagull-01-goodman-theatre-photo-by-liz-lauren
The Seagull

Goodman Theatre  (Oct 2010)
Written by Anton Chekhov
directed by Robert Falls
our review  photo album

Director Robert Falls wowed audiences with a simple, almost ascetic, presentation of Anton Chekhov’s sprawling tale of a dysfunctional theater family. Mary Shen Barnidge of Windy City Times noted that the production demanded much from both performers and audience but “The experience is well worth the effort . . . with intimacy generated by this Spartan approach illuminating the smallest secrets hidden beneath the surface of the most self-effacing personalities.” Our own Catey Sullivan raved, “Falls and his rock star cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and glory that makes the piece fly by . . . When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.” (our review)

 

   
Side Man at Metroplis Arts
Side Man 

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (March 2010)
Written by
Warren Leight
Directed by Lauren Rawitz  
our review  |  photo album

Warren Leight’s Tony Award-winning play was no maudlin sulkfest on the downward spiraling fortunes of jazz musicians tending to a diminishing art. If anything, director Lauren Rawitz followed the play’s emphasis on strong individual characterization and an unsentimental view of the unstable nature of artistic life. The tough, moxie and cohesive cast captured Leight’s humorous and gritty take on the lives of jazzmen and the women who love them. Michael B. Woods gave an especially stellar performance as Jonesy and Ryan Hallahan’s wry Clifford grounded the show as its narrator. Dustin Efrid’s neon set design gave the production the just the right touch of bluesy feel. (our review)

 

   
Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union
State of the Union 

Strawdog Theatre (October 2010)
Written by
Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
Directed by
Geoff Button
our review 

For a political play to matter much, it must prove its relevance beyond its genesis. These dramas must rise above the particulars of their time-sensitive plots and reveal to us a greater truth, something about the human condition or the faults of our society.State of the Union, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, is an example of this brilliant kind of evergreen political theatre, especially as its tale of political gaming and pandering is as true today as it ever was then. Infused with the talent of the Strawdog Theatre Company, this work managed to not only serve as editorial but as a charmingly funny piece of theatre.  Geoff Button’s direction was commendable, especially given the sheer number of entrances and exits he had to manage throughout the play. (our review)

     
streetcar named desire - tennessee williams - writers theatre
A Streetcar Named Desire
 

Writers’ Theatre (May 2010)
Written by
Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Cromer
our review 

David Cromer’s direction injected vitality and vivid perspective into Writers’ production of this sultry Williams classic. Barry Eitel remarked, “Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but . . . he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story . . . his Streetcar is a searing as July in the French Quarter.”  Matt Hawkins, Natasha Lowe and Stacy Stoltz carved new and original ground as Stanley, Blanche and Stella and Collette Pollard’s scenic design put the audience right in their squalid New Orleans apartment. Kerry Reid of the Chicago Reader wrote that Writers’ production “tears away at the Spanish moss of sentimentality that sometimes shrouds this play and lays bare our tragic flaws, both as individuals and as a people . . .”  (our review)

 

   
Tad in the 5th City - MPAACT Chicago
Tad in the 5th City 

MPAACT  (May 2010) 
Directed and Adapted by
Carla Stillwell  
From the poetry of
Orron Kenyatta
our review 

MPAACT gave Chicago a visceral shot in the arm with its world premiere adaptation about the aftermath of the 1968 riots that burned the West side of Chicago. Our K. D. Hopkins praises the outstanding cast that poetically depicts the community that survived in the ashes. “The magnificent Andre Teamer plays Uncle Brotha with the desperation and hope of a man watching his neighborhood swirl down the sewer . . . David Goodloe is new to America . . . His portrayal of James is like an exposed nerve . . . Destin L. Teamer . . . son of Andre Teamer . . . is an adorable and handsome young man in the 5th grade and yet he turns in a performance of a seasoned veteran . . . his portrayal is savvy and heartbreaking . . . MPAACT has produced yet another honest and powerhouse addition to the Chicago theater scene.” (our review)

 

   
The Tallest Man at Artistic Home
The Tallest Man 

The Artistic Home  (June 2010)
Written by
Jim Lynch 
Directed by
John Mossman  
our review

The Artistic Home evoked intense cultural accuracy and emotional veracity with their rendering of Jim Lynch’s turn-of-the-century Irish township, where people scramble for survival under British rule, the memory of the Potato Famine a lurking shadow of the recent past. A consummate ensemble effort by the cast brought out the best in Jim Lynch’s script. K. D. Hopkins writes, “The language is coarse and the action naturalistic. There is blood, sweat, spit and lust in every scene both implied or seen. John Mossman directs this production seamlessly . . .” (our review)

   
To Master The Art - Timeline Theatre Chicago
To Master the Art 

Timeline Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
our review

Timeline’s first commissioned play was a “masterful, multilayered experience that excites all the senses,” said Leah Zeldes. The production gently folded in Cold War obsessions about Communism with Julia Child’s discovery of French cuisine and her efforts to compose and publish her groundbreaking cookbook. (our review) Karen James Woditsch, Craig Spidle, Terry Hamilton, Jeannie Affelder and Ann Wakefield led the superbly balanced ensemble cast. William Brown’s staging was “impeccable” around scenic designer Keith Pitts’ charming Parisian kitchen.  (our review)

   
Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven
The Water Engine: An American Fable 

Theatre Seven  (Nov 2010)
Written by
David Mamet 
Directed by
Brian Golden  
our review  photo album

Theatre Seven took on a feat of virtuosity when they mounted this play-within-a-radio-play, with 10 actors taking on 40 roles, in a exploration of a Depression Era inventor’s quest to implement his creation, an engine that runs on pure water. The cast impressed with its uncommon professionalism, working together “like a well-oiled machine,” and Director Brian Golden “effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways.” Leah A. Zeldes called the production “beautifully nuanced” and while Mamet’s plot “is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful . . .” (our review)

   
Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf - Steppenwolf Theatre
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
 

Steppenwolf Theatre (Dec 2010)
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Pam McKinnon
our review

Steppenwolf rounded out their year with a tightly drawn, tensely wound portrait of America’s favorite warring couple, George and Martha. Pam McKinnon’s direction insisted on greater naturalism, with Tracy Letts’ consummate performance as George taking on subtler shades of calculation and sadism, while Amy Morton’s Martha was distinctly more understated and vulnerable. (See our review here.) Madison Dirks’ Nick charmed as a budding player who gets played and Carrie Coon’s Honey almost stole the show with her emblematic mixture of goofiness and pathos. Kris Vire of TimeOut Chicago recognizes that MacKinnon’s direction “hugs curves in a way one suspects wouldn’t be possible without the firm rapport between Morton and Letts.” A marriage made in hell for the characters–but a marriage made in heaven for Chicago audiences.  (our review)

All summaries written by Paige Listerud.

     
     

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: 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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Raven Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

raven theatre logo

Raven Theatre announces

 

A Season With The Masters

Williams, Wilson, Chekhov

Producing Artistic Director Michael Menendian and Co-Artistic Director JoAnn Montemurro announce Raven Theatre’s 2010/2011 Season, which includes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, Radio Golf by August Wilson and The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. Each story illuminates intimate, personal conflicts amidst massive cultural shifts, whether it is within the family unit, the local African American community or the entire nation.  (more info at the Raven Theatre website)

October 17 – December 19, 2010

   
   
  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
  Written by Tennessee Williams 
Directed by
Michael Menendian
   
  Big Daddy’s birthday brings out the true colors of the wealthy Pollitt family. At the heart of the story is Maggie, the beautiful daughter-in-law, who struggles with a lack of emotional honesty from her husband, Brick, and with the judgment of Brick’s brother and his wife. Lies, deception, false loyalty, and greed play characters as big as Big Daddy himself in one of Williams’ most loved dramas. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955 and was made into a major motion picture in 1958.

 

  February 27 – April 9, 2011

   
   
  Radio Golf
   
  Written by August Wilson
Directed by Aaron Todd Douglas
   
  Radio Golf, written in 2005, was August Wilson’s last play before his untimely death (August 2005). It is also the final chapter in The Pittsburgh Cycle. In this stirring drama an Ivy League educated entrepreneur, Harmond Wilks, and his banking executive friend plan to convert a blighted neighborhood into an expansive shopping mall. Their ultimate goal is to use Wilks’ success as a developer to leverage him into becoming Pittsburgh’s first African American mayor. It’s a dirty political business that includes back room deals and zoning loop holes. When they discover that a building cited for demolition has a history that affects their heritage, these two modern men are forced to get in touch with their past. Radio Golf won the 2007 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

 

June 5 – July 23, 2011

   
   
  The Cherry Orchard
   
  Written by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Michael Menendian
   
  Chekhov’s last play tapped the history of his own family’s home and the fall of the aristocracy. In The Cherry Orchard, the Ranevsky family is facing financial ruin, largely due to the spendthrift ways of the family matriarch and her devotion to a parasitic lover. The family attempts to come up with a solution so that the estate won’t be sold, but none of the plans lead to action.
   

 

Character Dynamics

The dynamics that define the characters in these plays are similar to those that drive our own lives today. Williams’ masterpiece, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, centers on the legacy of Big Daddy’s enormous wealth, which was amassed by exploiting cheap labor to create one of the largest plantations in the South. Radio Golf, August Wilson’s final work in his ten-play cycle about the Black culture in Pittsburgh, delves into the ambitions of the rising middle class in pursuit of their American Dream. In the genteel comedy The Cherry Orchard, foreclosure of an estate threatens a family’s way of life that has remained unchanged for decades.

 salesmanchippies Photo from last seasons critically acclaimed Death of a Salesman (our review)

12 Angry Men - Raven Theatre Photo from last season’s critically-acclaimed Twelve Angry Men. (our review)

    
     

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