Where: Northlight Theatre,
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through April 20
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In the program notes for Northlight Theatre’s world premiere of “Landladies,” Sharyn Rothstein’s play about a slum landlord and her new tenant, the playwright says she hopes we “fall in love with these women the way I have” and walk away with “a new-found respect for their ability to laugh, love, and survive what to so many would be simply insurmountable.”
I must admit, I didn’t fall in love with them at all, despite the first-rate acting and Jess McLeod’s strong direction. I felt sorry for Christine (Leah Karpel), the single mom trying to make ends meet with a job at a taco shop. I even understood why she had trouble ditching the Poet (Julian Parker), the charming but abusive alcoholic who got her evicted from her previous apartment. But her new landlady Marti (Shanesia Davis) came across as a real piece of work, and not in a good way.
Inspired by Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” though apparently not based on any of the eight families living in Milwaukee’s low-income housing in that book, the 90-minute play follows what Rothstein calls an “unexpected friendship” from the day Marti rents to Christine, pretending reluctance, to the night she kicks her out—with a final scene that takes place three years later.
The concept is refreshing, and the idea of Marti becoming a kind of older sister/mentor to the lower-class Christine has its moments. There’s also plenty humor. But the relationship is inherently exploitive. We can believe that Marti develops some affection for Christine’s four-year-old daughter, but if she’s supposed to care at all about Christine, she wouldn’t behave in the unethical way she does.
Our suspicions start—or should—with the apartment itself. I don’t know in what city it’s supposed to be, but this place—designed by Arnel Sancianco—is a dump that wouldn’t come near passing a Chicago building inspection. The stove is conspicuously missing, and there’s no kitchen sink or refrigerator, either. The walls are filthy and stained. A window is broken. There’s a big hole in the wood floor, the fault of a previous tenant, Marti says. Instead of promising to make repairs and install an oven, Marti declares a single woman doesn’t need to cook and touts amenities like the couch (which is held together with duct tape).
What’s worse is that Marti doesn’t have anything fixed while Christine is living there, not even the floor (a potentially serious legal liability for any landlord). Yet she claims to like her tenant and even brings a microwave. She also encourages her to take a real-estate class given by a friend, but the Poet tells Christine that it’s really a scam for which Marti is getting a kickback.
Christine doesn’t listen and, spurred by what she sees as Marti’s success, volunteers to help show apartments and such, if Marti will start paying her when she finishes the class. She envisions becoming a landlady herself, perhaps even Marti’s partner.
Marti’s aspiration is to buy a nicer building than the couple she already owns and to fix it up, so her mother will stop calling her a “slum landlord.” Truth is, though, that she’s deep in debt and barely treading water as she awaits both city approval and financing for her project.
Rothstein contrives a conflict for Christine’s loyalty between Marti, a lesbian who is not having much luck in love, and the Poet, who is trying, not very successfully, to clean up his act. The child, whom we see briefly, figures both in Marti’s antipathy to the Poet and Christine’s mixed feelings towards him. When a violent incident brings matters to a head, Marti evicts Christine, simultaneously demanding back rent and claiming the eviction is not because she’s behind but because she didn’t succeed in banishing the Poet from her life.
If we’re supposed to have any sympathy for Marti at all, this is one of the scenes that needs to be seriously reworked. Only a heartless landlord would try to throw a tenant and her meager belongings out on the street in the middle of the night, it’s probably not legal to do that. In addition, one would think that Marti would have offered Christine some compensation for her help with apartments, say by reducing the rent she owes.
The last scene, which takes place three years later in Marti’s apartment—the set converts efficiently—makes even less sense. Christine comes, ostensibly to apologize (for complaining to the housing department) and to invite Marti to see her daughter, now seven, but it turns out that she really is upset because Marti has contacted a collection agency to get the unpaid rent.
We’re left in the dark about a lot of things, among them how Christine has managed to survive in the interim (when last seen, she and her sister, who had helped her, had fallen out), what happened to the Poet, and why on earth would she want to see Marti. Her willingness to let Marti visit her daughter because she might be a good influence and the little girl loves her stretches credulity, especially since she could just have written off the unpaid rent, given that her economic circumstances have improved.
Although I enjoyed watching three talented actors craft their complicated roles, in the end “Landladies” was more annoying than satisfying.