Where: Block St. Theater Co. at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Feb. 18
By ANNE SPISELMAN
By half an hour into the world premiere of Block St. Theatre Co.’s “Flamingo & Decatur” at Theater Wit, I was more than a little worried. Playwright Todd Taylor, a former sportswriter and poker pro, as well as a founding member of the Fayetteville, Arkansas company, had packed his set up with enough shop talk about sports and gambling to make anyone’s eyes glaze over, and the characters didn’t seem very interesting.
Only the time and place held out some promise. Set far from the glitz and glamor of the Las Vegas Strip in the wake of the 2008 crash that trashed the area’s economy, the play unfolds among real people rather than tourists in the backyard of a house in the hills southwest of the city.
We first see Jackson (Jason M. Shipman), a self-styled “sports investor” with a penchant for betting wildly, on the treadmill watching a game on a portable television. Then he moves to the putting course in the yard, which also has a hot tub and high back fence, all nicely designed by Joe Schermoly.
A visit from busybody neighbor Simon (Nathaniel Stahlke) interrupts this routine. He comes to complain about the browned-out lawn Jackson hasn’t been watering and threatens to report him to the homeowner’s association. Next we meet Jackson’s roommate Ben (Drew Johnson), an online poker junkie who just wants to “not be unlucky” and munches pizza to taunt Jackson, who has bet a hustler named “Houston Ray” that he can remain an alcohol-free vegan for longer.
As we’re wondering if this is going anywhere, we learn that the house is in foreclosure and Jackson and Ben are squatters taking advantage of the situation. Self-righteous Simon learns this, too, and uses a nasty game of “Simon says” to basically blackmail Jackson into paying him $500 a month and mowing both their lawns.
Cash strapped because Ben’s money is tied up as a result of the Department of Justice’s crackdown on online gambling and Jackson is waiting for action from a dangerous guy named TK on a golf game in Diablo Canyon, the pair decide to “rent” a bedroom to an unsuspecting straight-up person. Ben brings over his friend Nicole (Stephanie Bignault), a poker “vampire” with a reputation for sucking the suckers dry, and Jackson helps sell the deal. So, on the heels of a breakup with her boyfriend, she moves in.
There’s a lot more shop talk and very little plot. Not surprisingly, Jackson and Nicole start to fall for each other but it ends badly. Though he’s happy to work the system and sees himself as a puma in a world of tree frogs, he can’t bring himself to sleep with Nicole without telling her the truth. Enraged at being conned by someone she cared for (which may be why she doesn’t blame Ben, although he’s equally responsible), she demands her money back and storms out—then deliberately ruins a deal for Jackson, though her motive is unclear, and she may actually be doing him a good turn.
The complexity of the characters and their interactions is what makes Flamingo & Decatur” more engaging as the two hours pass, The final scene between Jackson, a decent man despite his many flaws, and recently divorced, cat-loving nurse Simon, who has been a real jerk, epitomizes this strength. Jackson, depressed by various setbacks, just wants the annoying Simon to go away, but as Simon persists in making small talk—and we realize how lonely he is—Jackson relents and lets himself be drawn into a conversation about the Michigan-Ohio game on tv, then golf, and so on. Unseen by Simon, the amused expressions on the face of Shipman’s Jackson are priceless, and at this point it becomes clear that all the shop talk can be a way of communicating as well as of avoiding communication.
Taylor needs to do a lot more work on focus and a stronger plot, but if he plays his cards right, he could have a play worthy of the very good acting.