Review: “Big Lake Big City”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave,
When: through Aug. 25
Tickets: $36-$79
Phone: 312-337-0665

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The world premiere of “Big Lake Big City” opened at Lookingglass Theatre to great expectations. Local playwright Keith Huff catapulted to fame when his gritty two-character Chicago cop drama, “A Steady Rain,” got a Broadway production starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, and he’s gone on to a career in Los Angeles writing for hit television series, such as “Mad Men” and “House of Cards.” The director is Lookingglass cofounder and ensemble member, David Schwimmer, whose list of acting and directing credits for stage and screen (big and small) just keeps growing. And the material — a film noir-ish detective story that revels in the city’s sights and sounds —seems ideal to round out the company’s 25th anniversary season.

The main problems are that the script is unwieldy and the runway staging, though inventively environmental, doesn’t do enough to clarify it or focus our attention. In addition, the acting styles are all over the place, and neither Huff nor Schwimmer has decided whether to embrace film noir or satirize the genre, so they try to do both.

With a $53-million Modigliani sculpture of a head (it looks like a woman but has the voice of a man with an Italian accent) providing the narration, Huff weaves together three main plot lines, all of them involving heads, by the way. Hard-boiled detective Bastion Podaris (Philip R. Smith), who has anger-management issues, and his yoga-practicing partner, Vince Getz (Danny Goldring, perfectly cast), are assigned to investigate a double homicide: a man and a woman who were shot in the base of the skull, then set afire. Their main suspect is Elston Moss (Anthony Fleming III), recently released from prison where he’d been sent by Podaris, possibly on trumped-up charges so the detective could wed his woman, Ally (Katherine Cunningham), a sexy, volatile “escort” turned dental hygienist now trapped in an unhappy marriage.
Also unhappily married are Peter (Kareem Bandealy), a cardio-thoracic surgeon who lost his license after losing several patients and now works at the city morgue (where employees play golf with heads wrapped in plastic), and Susan Howren, MD (Beth Lacke), who’s achieved fame and fortune as TV’s Dr. Grief. Bass and Susan’s lives intersect when their spouses start up an affair and later are found dead and burned to a crisp in flagrante delicto in a seedy motel room.

As part of his investigation, Podaris also is trying to find Stewart Perez (Eddie Martinez), a former associate of Moss, construction worker and life-long screw-up who has ended up with a titanium screwdriver lodged in his head and the diagnosis that, if it’s pulled out, he’s dead. Wearing a Shriner’s fez to hide it, he goes to a travel agency for a ticket to Disney World before he dies. There he meets and falls for agent Maria Vasquez (Wendy Mateo), who was questioned by Podaris as a witness to the first murders and also had called Dr. Howren after downing a whole bottle of pills in her grief.

Most important of the other characters are Perez’s brother and boss, Trent (J. Salomé Martinez), and Philip Divot (Thomas J. Cox), a cloak-and-dagger insurance investigator whose suspicions center on Peter’s life insurance policy and the Modigliani head, which naturally is stolen, sort of.

If you’re having trouble keeping this miniseries worth of complications straight — and there are more, believe me — watching them unfold in a succession of many short scenes doesn’t help. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s scenic design features everything from a park bench to the NoMI lounge in the Park Hyatt and a Navy Pier Ferris Wheel car to a miniature-car chase on a street flanked by curbs (complete with cigarette butts), and the actors are deployed all over the place. The result is, almost no matter where you’re sitting, they will sometimes have their backs to you or be almost out of view, exacerbating the difficulty of following what’s going on. Christine A. Binder’s lighting design is atmospheric but not illuminating in this regard; however, Rick Sims’ moody music is a plus.

One symptom of the shortcomings for me was that by the time the tale was winding down and the loose ends were being wrapped up, I could barely remember who the initial murder victims were or why they were important, so the revelation of the culprit came as a complete anticlimax. The machinations of the other characters didn’t matter much, because I didn’t really care about any of them. The one exception was Stewart. Although Martinez didn’t make the pain of his predicament palpable, he did come across as a likable human being who learns about himself and life from a horrible experience. His acting style is very natural and low-key, as is that of Mateo as Wendy.

In contrast, the rest range from intermittently believable, such as Lacke’s elegant Dr. Howren, to ramped-up, especially Smith’s Podaris, whose outbursts of rage are deliberately outrageous. Several — Fleming’s Moss, Cox’s Philip Divot, Cunningham’s Ally — are basically cartoons, tipping the whole affair into the realm of parody.
While there’s something to be said for a messy, mixed-up, make-believe portrait of crime in the Windy City, if I were going to edit “Big Lake Big City,” I’d start with “less is more.” Streamline the plot, reduce the number of characters we have to keep track of, focus the action, clean up some of the clichéd dialogue and settle on a consistent acting style, and this could be a super evening. It’s not bad, now, mind you; it just could be so much better.

A Couple of Encores:

  • If you missed The House Theatre of Chicago’s “Death and Harry Houdini” the last time around, or the times before that, or even if you’ve seen it before, don’t miss this summer’s reprise. Dennis Watkins is terrific as the death-defying magician, whether he’s showcasing sleight-of-hand or pulling out all the stops for the “Water Torture Cell.” The whole show is imaginatively staged and surprisingly moving, too. It runs through Aug. 11 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., 773-769-3832. Tickets are $40.
  • First staged by Theater Wit in 2007, Will Eno’s “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” is being remounted by original director Jeremy Wechsler and actor Lance Baker at the company’s current home, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., 773-975-8150, through July 27. Though Eno’s intricate use of language is fascinating, and Baker’s masterful performance is simultaneously creepily intense and nonchalant, the hour-long solo performance is not for all tastes. It’s like eavesdropping on the inner monologue of a character who is self-destructing yet is self-conscious enough to know that he’s doing it in front of an audience he can manipulate. One of his sad autobiographical stories centers on the tragic separation of a boy and his dog; another on a breakup resulting from a total failure to connect. By the end, I’d had more than enough. Tickets are $12-$36.