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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Steppenwolf Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

 

Explores theme of “public/private self”

 

34th Season Kick-Off Celebration by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-2011 Season

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

Review: UIC Theatre’s “Stars in the Morning Sky”

 Touching, if limited, performances in “Stars In the Morning Sky”

stars pub 4 UIC Theatre presents:

Stars in the Morning Sky

adapted by Peter Christensen and Yasen Peyankov
directed by Lupa Lopatina Solomon
thru November 22nd  (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

stars pub 1 Lupa Lopatina Solomon last directed Stars In the Morning Sky with co-director and translator Yasen Peyankov as a member of the now-defunct European Repertory Theatre. A retelling of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths by Russian playwright Aleksandr Galin, the play depicts the desperate lives of women in prostitution at the opening of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In an attempt to present a clean face to the world, Soviet authorities have rounded up the city’s sex workers and deposited them on the outskirts of the city in rundown barracks that once served as a mental hospital.

Solomon has honed a well-integrated student production; the cast is a fairly even and cohesive ensemble, set with strikingly imaginative lighting (Carl Ulaszek) and sound (Lea Palmeno) design. At this stage in their craft, all of the students deliver on their characters’ intentions and motivations, while not all face the same challenges. In a play that would test the limits of mature, professional actors, some fall short like horses that have been handicapped from the starting line-up.

Erin Yucus and Rashida KhanBey carry the additional burden of playing older women with more arduous and twisted histories than the rest. Valentina (Yucus) is a hardened Soviet style worker who runs the barracks that house the temporarily homeless whores. Ana (KhanBey) is an older, alcoholic prostitute who, while merciless about her own self-appraisal, acts with instinctive motherliness toward the younger women hauled in. While both actors convey women under lifelong hardship, both also sink heavily into their portrayals with little nuance, suggesting the need for greater life experience as well as technique. Ironically, their characters’ significant moments of sorrow lack the depth to be realistic.

stars pub5

By contrast, those cast members with roles within their age range fair better. Jessica Roach’s Lora is believably flighty and childlike in her idealism, while Zarinah Ali’s Klara virtually dominates the stage with insouciant energy. Perhaps Carolyn Molloy is the most seriously tested of all the cast, since her character, Maria, becomes assaulted in an attempt to leave the barracks. It’s a role that Molloy unabashedly takes on but also at moments loses her bearings, slipping in and out of convincing interpretation.

UIC Theatre’s production is most successful in creating ensemble and maintaining even, progressive storytelling. The last moment of the play where the tech crew revolves the stage is the only disturbance in the fourth wall and it is worth the payoff—it reveals the banished women waving to the city in pride over the Olympics they have been denied. With all it shortcomings, this production still shows its power to touch the audience.

stars pub 8

Updates: Steppenwolf’s “Superior Donuts” on Broadway

Tracy Letts’ most recent play, Superior Donuts, just opened on Broadway with the same Steppenwolf cast.  After receiving moderate to warm reviews here in Chicago, the NYC reviews so far appear mixed.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

 

The NY Post gives Superior Donuts a very positive review – 3.5 stars:

After Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts‘ follow-up to August: Osage County, premiered in Chicago last year, the play was deemed entertaining but minor.

Either this Steppenwolf production has been drastically reworked on its way to New York, or we live in a cynical world where a show as tender and honest, as beautifully written, acted and directed as this one can be blithely dismissed.

 

 

While the New York Times produces a review that is so-so:

Mr. Letts has mothballed his angst and tossed the deadly weapons in the back drawer. Superior Donuts, a gentle comedy that unfolds like an extended episode of a 1970s sitcom, is a warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles rather than rattled nerves.

Superior Donuts may be familiar and unchallenging, but it’s also comfortable — and no, there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Below, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones interviews playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County“) and lead actor Michael McKean (“Laverne and Shirley“, “Saturday Night Live“, “This is Spinal Tap“) about Superior Donuts, Letts’ new play premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. Letts’ 2007 play August: Osage County won the Pultizer Prize and Tony Award in 2008.

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Video: Aerial training for Steppenwolf’s “The Tempest”

Came across this YouTube video featuring Emma Rosenthal and Miles Fletcher discussing their aerial training for “The Tempest“, which opens this weekend at the Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by ensemble member Tina Landau.  Heard on the video, this tamer-than-it-sounds quote from cast member Miles Fletcher:  

“I can’t tell you how many times we were told to wear tight-fitting clothing to our callback and audition.”

Who needs the health club when you have rehearsals like the one in the video!!

 

 

“The Tempest”, by William Shakespeare, also features ensemble members Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, Frank Galati, Jon Michael Hill, Tim Hopper, James Vincent Meredith, Yasen Peyankov, Lois Smith and Alan Wilder with Eric James Casady, Miles Fletcher, Stephen Louis Grush, Emma Rosenthal and Craig Spidle

Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (TimeOut Chicago)

Court Theatre's "Caroline or Change", six out of six stars The Hypocrite's "Our Town" "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Apollo Theater Steep Theatre's "Breathing Corpses"

 

TimeOut Chicago‘s Christopher Platt and Kris Vire present their top 10 Chicago theater picks of 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); actors: Kate Fry, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director), actors: Jennifer Grace (as Emily), David Cromer (narrator)
 
     
3. Speech and Debate  (American Theatre Company)
by Stephen Karam
Standouts: PJ Paparelli (ATC Artistic Director); performances: Patrick Andrews, Jared McGuire, Sadieh Rifai
 
     
4. Uncle Vanya (TUTA TheatreChicago)
by Anton Chekhov
Standouts: Zeljko Djukic (director), Yasen Peyankov  and Peter Christensen (translators), Martin Andrew (designer)
 
     
5. Miss Julie  (The Hypocrites)
by August Strindberg
Standouts: Sean Graney (director); performances: Stacy Stoltz, Greg Hardigan
 
     
6. Titus Andronicus  (Court Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), ; performances: Timothy Edward Kane, Hollis Resnik
 
     
7. Fake Lake  (The Neo-Futurists)
by Sharon Greene
Standouts: Halena Kays (director), Welles Park pool, Mikhail Fiksel
 
     
8. Breathing Corpses  (Steep Theatre)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Robin Witt (director), Marcus Stephen (set designer)
 
     
9. Million Dollar Quartet  (Goodman, Apollo Theater)
Standouts: Levi Kreis (as Jerry Lee Lewis), Lance Guest (Johnny Cash), Rob Lyon (Carl Perkins), Eddie Clendening (Elvis Presley)
 
     
10. As Told by the Vivian Girls  (Dog & Pony Theatre)
by Devin de Mayo
Standouts: Devin de Mayo (director)
 

 

To see the TimeOut Chicago description of each of these shows, click here.