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Zach Zimmerman

Zach Zimmerman

Monday, 27 February 2012 19:57

A War of Worldviews in "Time Stands Still"

In a hip, New York City loft (the kind where a bike hangs from the ceiling, a French press sits in the kitchen, and Mac laptops are scattered everywhere), Sarah hobbles in.  Her left leg is wrapped in a brace, she uses a crutch to get around, and when the lights turn on, we see the horrifying scars on her face. She’s returning from Iraq, not where she served in combat, but as a photojournalist when a roadside bomb launched her and her cameras into the sky.  The terror of war is behind her, but the emotional drama that unfolds is almost as terrifying, as her adjustment to “normal” life makes her question meaning, love, and happiness.

Playwright Donald Margulies admits in his playbill interview (Steppenwolf always supplements its on-stage productions with exceptional on-page content) that he is fascinated by the role of an artist in society: provocateur? reflecter? activist?  Like a well-argued essay, “Time Stands Still” confronts the dilemma a photographer faces when they are confronted with covering a war without intervening.  Sarah finds no moral qualm, but her editor’s much-younger, perhaps naiver lover is horrified.  Mandy Bloom, who we learn is about to bloom with a child, doesn’t understand how someone could snap a picture of a wounded person without snapping to action to help them.  This ethical dilemma, however, is a symptom of a much greater war between worldviews that these women represent: family versus career, surrounding yourself with happiness or devoting yourself to tragedy.  At the extremes of the spectrum are these two women: one wholeheartedly devoted to the former, one to the latter.

Austin Pendleton directs an impressive cast that bring life to the characters, while managing tension, comedic timing, and high, emotional stakes throughout.  Sally Murphy shows considerable physical range embodying the torture of a woman in recovery, and newcomer Kristina Valada-Viars is pitch-perfect as the delightfully ignorant Mandy.  Francis Guinan and Randall Newsome, the men in the drama, are only neglected here for the sake of analysis, not the quality of their performances, which are bold and richly textured.

These nuanced characters are the core of “Time Stands Still,” which is essentially a domestic drama.  Josh Schmidt’s ominous original score situates it against the backdrop of a painful, foreign war, but still the characters and their desires stand at the center.  Even while dealing with the ethics of wartime photography, “Time Stands Still” never abandons the needs and wants of these four fictional folks.  Instead, the philosophical debates grow out of human desires and conflicts.  The characters are not mouthpieces for a soapbox sermon, but rather the playwright uses the characters to play out his own struggles with the role of the artist in society.  When a play can bring to life compelling characters who embody larger themes, and when a production can bring texture and life to a text in a riveting, realistic way, the audience holds their breath and time truly stands still.

Time won't stand still -- this Steppenwolf production ends May 13, 2012. More information at www.steppenwolf.org.


Sunday, 26 February 2012 22:17

"Hit the Wall" shakes its fists and ass



Maybe I'm just a faggot, but "Hit the Wall" is damn good.


In the intimate Steppenwolf Garage with an ensemble of only 8, the chaos and havoc of the Stonewall Inn riots is powerfully recreated by Chicago storefront The Inconvenience.  At its climax, high-energy and expertly choreographed fight sequences rumble over original rock music and hushed lights to evoke the events of that night.  But what comes before are a series of beautifully written and precisely performed scenes that introduce an eclectic mix of characters with a powerful mix of heart and sass.


Playwright Ike Holter has penned a compelling piece that back on that night not with nostalgia, but with angst, regret, and wit.  Amongst the cast of characters are cat-calling stoop-sitters whose fuse is as short as their shorts, a confident transwoman who moves like water through water, and a feminist propagandist who sermonizes anyone unfortunate enough to stand in her way.  Each is archetype, if not a caricature, and they are paired together like swatches of fabric to see what clashes and what syncs up.


A police officer, who stands up for the entire force used on the night of the riots, becomes an obvious villain in this tale of sexual liberation.  There's a heart-wrenching moment about two-thirds of the way through.  Peggy, a tight-lipped stocky woman who wears a leather jacket and kisses girls, has been cornered by a police officer in the Inn.  It's June 1969, and a woman dressing like a man is a punishable crime.  In a shadowy corner, the NYPD officer frisks Peggy and finds not a gun, drugs, or other illegal merchandise, but breasts.  He grabs them hard, and then lowers his hand into her pants to confirm his suspicion.


The move is truly reprehensible.


While some scenes following this might be cut to maintain momentum, the piece is extremely well-paced and structured.  Exposition is provided by presentational, overlapping voices of the cast, reminiscent of the documentary play "The Larmamie Project."  We're told just how hot it was in New York that night, and how each character "needs a drink!" after a long and taxing day.  The piece's title is a play on "hitting the wall," a term in endurance sports like running and cycling for a sudden loss of energy.  The characters have hit the wall of persecution, but they have sparked a battle for LGBTQ rights that is an endurance sport of its own.


Early in the play, the characters talk about the street credit that comes with claiming "I was there" on the night of the riot.  I wasn't alive in 1969, so I can't say I was there when a hot night in a bar sparked a fight that still wages, but I can say I was there when a Chicago storefront debuted a powerful play that can move you to tears and laughter as it shakes its fists and its ass.

When you enter the Steppenwolf Garage through April 8, 2012, try not to Hit the Wall. More information at www.steppenwolftheatre.org.


A thin, pale boy sits in his boxers at the foot of a small, twin bed when you enter the third floor of the Flat Irons Building.  He’ll be the narrator and key figure in the 90-minute story of technology, morality, and obsession.  It’s a frightening tale of internet manipulation that almost ends fatally, but what is most frightening is that the story is true.

Inspired by the 2004 Vanity Fair article, “U Want Me 2 Kill Him,” Carlos Murillo has penned a morality tale of how young neurosis and technology can collide to create a digital world as dangerous as our own.  In “dark play, or stories for boys” (written in lowercase like a lazy IM conversation), 16-year old Nick seduces his classmate Adam in a chat room using the gorgeous, perfect, and perfectly fake woman Rachel.  In real life, this woman had no body, but this fictional female is embodied in the play, reciting the lines of text as if she is a fully fleshed character.  Collaboraction Artistic Director Anthony Mosley’s staging is so engaging that you forget most of the dialogue takes place while characters sit at a computer screen.  Besides being compelling, frightening, and well-acted, “dark play” is an excellent example of how technological interactions which consume so much of our contemporary lives can be meaningfully staged using traditional theatrical conventions.

Just as thespians create characters to illicit emotion, so too does Nick craft a three-dimensional digital Delilah.  The difference, however, is that theatergoers are conscious of their manipulation.  They may suspend their disbelief, but they know they are merely players on a stage, a fact they’re reminded of come curtain call.  But there is no curtain call in the online roman in “dark play.”  The truth is only revealed after a nearly-fatal ending, which appears quickly in the play, and despite being the actual event, feels somewhat false.   Ironically, the strength of “dark play” is also its weakness.  The climax might be real, but it diverges so far from the play’s reality that the ending feels somewhat contrived.  It’s deeply ironic that a true ending feels false.

That said, the bulk of “dark play” is theatrical and entertaining, chronicling what a British prosecutor called “an Internet soap opera moving from one scene to another, each character and story line more fantastic than the last."  It’s a startling exploration of a young boy’s psyche, which is all the more frightening when you realize we are only a few keystrokes away from doing the same.

In the Heights, winner of the 2008 Tony for Best Musical, follows three generations in the primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights as they deal with issues of class, race, and assimilation.  It’s also really good.

Penned by musician and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who played the bodega-owner/narrator in the original Broadway production), In the Heights is a poppy, rappy, collection of songs filled with a carnival energy and carnal emotionality that resonate regardless of race.  While some jokes might be missed by EOL spectators (English as Only Language), the struggles of making it and what to make of it are universal

Usnavi, named after a ship his parents saw as they immigrated to the United States, welcomes us to his bodega, where he provides caffeine and empty dreams (lotto tickets) to his neighbors.  He’s sandwiched in between two other shops – a salon with stereotypically gabby stylists and a family-run cab company, whose owner and wife eagerly welcome their daughter back from her first year at Stanford.  Nina, who represents everything they came to America to achieve, returns to confess she’s lost her scholarship and is on academic leave.  The one who got out has dropped out.

While the first half-dozen songs of the show are mostly solo numbers, the clever lyrics, emotional music, and strong performances easily make up for a lack of variety. The touring cast is non-Equity, but their talent is non-arguable.  When a group number does appear – “96,000” (not the number of minutes in two months, but the number of dollars in a winning lotto ticket), the audience is captivated and the conflicting desires of the town come to a point.  While Grandma remembers the island and her difficulty of assimilating into the United States, Usnavi’s love interest Natalie who will do anything to get out.  These generational differences are more than teenage angst, and instead echo the cyclical rhythms of offspring turning away from their parents to create lives of their own.

While the second act takes second place compared to the first, there are several strong numbers.  However, they only reveal the slice-of-life quality to the piece.  The overall stakes remain low.  A pair of casual love stories and family drama make for strong individual stories, but combined they fail to elevate the 2.5-hour show to a place of profound emotional or narrative relevance.  Of course, I’d rather a musical attempt to accomplish much and slightly fail than succeed at the simple.  The accomplishment of preserving a historical moment in a neighborhood on the cups of gentrification outweighs any slightly out-of-focus narrative.  Also, it’s really damn good.

The lights are up on In the Heights at the Oriental Theatre through January 15.  More information at www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Dunanana. Snap. Snap.

Dunanana. Snap. Snap.

Dunanana. Dunanana. Dunanana. Snap. Snap.

The opening theme to the popular television series The Addams Family christens the overture of the new musical The Addams Family, playing this week at the Cadillac Palace in Broadway in Chicago.  After a pre-Broadway tryout in chicago with Nathan Lane as the horny patriarch Gomez, the production has been revamped and retooled and still plays on Broadway as the touring production visits its birthplace.

Each Addams is accounted for: the ghostly wife Morticia with a plunging neckline, the violent and pudgy Pugsley, the angsty Wednesday, and a whole slew of undead Addams that serve as the chorus.  The story they tell is a classic clash of families - Romeo & Juliet style, but with a quintessentially Addams twist.  The pale and ruthless Wednesday has found herself falling for a “normal” boy and is worried her family, especially her mother, will disapprove.  The macabre and the mundane clash at a large dinner that should showcase the morbid, twisted psyche of all things Addams.  But some over-characterization of the boy’s family distract from the titular family: the Mom speaks in poetry, the Dad has lost that loving feeling, and the Son has almost no personality, except for when it sets up a punchline for the Addams crew.  Rather than serve as a grounded juxtaposition to the Addam’s crazy, this invented threesome is bit too quirky and ends up fighting the titular family for focus.

Of course, this misstep might be forgivable if the show’s songs were tuneful and passionate.  But while the witty book deserves snaps, the songs in The Addams Family are more dunanana.  And I can put my finger on the it (or Cousin It).  Wednesday’s power ballad about being “Pulled in a New Direction” by love stands out as a song with emotion and a witty game to boot (as she sings, she tortures her brother by pulling his limbs in a new direction); but the other melodies, mostly unmemorable save the opening, tend to explain the plot rather than further it.  Lacking passion, the songs don’t build stakes or tension and end up flatlining  – which I suppose the Addams family would support.

A clever and witty book by the team behind Jersey Boys (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, whose other credits include co-writing Annie Hall and work with The Walt Disney studios) saves the night from complete death, with plenty of punchlines that celebrate the macabre and backwardly dark family.  But a central plot device - a mysterious “game,” which turns out to basically be “take a shot, tell a secret” – utterly misses the mark.  While the game and song, “Full Disclosure,” might properly close the first act of Lysistrata Jones or Legally Blonde, the Addams Family should develop a game a bit darker than your average peppy sorority sisters.

At its Chicago opening night, The Addams Family attracted a fair share of families, as kids as young as seven sat up straight to watch torture and ghosts abound.  And I felt like a kid at points, truly enjoying some of the clever and humorous puppetry (Fester’s love dance with the moon stands out).  But while the production might be enjoyed by most families, I still expect big budget musicals to offer something more passionate and moving to theatre-goers than the even-keeled nostalgic romp that The Addams Family is.  Snap. Snap.

The Addams Family is altogether spooky at the Cadillac Palace through January 1.  For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

Thursday, 29 December 2011 19:57

Waiting in a Pool for "Penelope"

The Greeks, who gave us theatre and big, fat weddings, have always been a rich source of inspiration for contemporary culture makers.  From James Joyce’s Ulysses to Disney’s Hercules, the iconic gods and legends of ancient Greece have been re-imagined, rebutted, and redone by painters, philosophers, and playwrights.  Penelope, a new play from the pen of Irish writer Edna Walsh, draws upon these distant myths to create a visually arresting, intellectually stimulating, but emotional lacking piece of theater which entertains in fits and starts.

Ancient myth (and a black-and-white comic in the Steppenwolf program) tells of the warrior Ulysses, who wages war, wins it, and pledges to return home to his love Penelope.  In the ten years’ meanwhile, hundreds of suitors vie for her hand while her husband is away.  Walsh’s Penelope starts with the final four.  In a drained swimming pool, the last of the suitors – one in each of their 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s – have set up camp and outwitted and outlasted their weaker competition.  The lounge chairs of suitors that have fallen before are haphazardly stacked in the corners of the pool, creating a sculpture-like symbol of failed love that looms throughout the piece.

The Speedo-clad men enjoy modern luxuries – a gas grill, potato chips, and a table full of alcohol and shot glasses – as they wait to make their daily plea to Penelope (the silent and stunning Logan Vaughn).  A blaring siren and red lights announce her entrances, as the suitors scramble to fix their hair and ready their remarks.  They beg - with spoken word and vaudeville routines – as she watches on a flat screen from her secluded loft.  Their pleas fall flat, but Fitz, the eldest suitor originally cast as John Mahoney and now played by ensemble member Tracy Letts, catches her attention.  Letts brings a boisterous energy to the weathered suitor, who hides his shyness in a book, but speaks with raw sincerity.

While none of the men are ultimately successful, it is their struggle and its universality that forms the shaky core of the work.  Despite the trappings of the contemporary – gas grills and potato chips – the ancient and eternal battles shine through: unrequited love, fierce competition, and the quest for friendship amidst it all.  A strong ensemble (Yasen Peyankov as the fiery Quinn, Ian Barford as the pained Burns, and Scott Jaeck as the chaotic Dunne) under the simple direction of Amy Morton bring powerful performances to the swimming pool floor.  But at its core, Penelope is more thought experiment than emotional journey, more clever than clear, and more brain than heart.

By play’s end, the audience has become a sort of meta-Penelope.  You watch the performances, but your interest ebbs and flows.  You appreciate the wit and devotion, but the recited words start to blur meld together.  In the end, you’re left waiting silently for something more, something truer to finally come home.

Swim with Penelope at Steppenwolf through February 5.  Tickets available at steppenwolf.org.

On a snowy New Year’s night in Chicago, a young homeless couple – wrapped in coats, scarves, and each others’ arms – search for a shelter for the night. Headed toward the warmth of the Red Line, the man realizes he’s lost his wallet when a mysterious dark-haired woman appears with it. She takes an interest in the pair in the CTA tunnel and offers them two tickets to her hedonistic end-of-the-year bash. Ballroom dresses, masquerade masks, and alligator head filled with fresh strawberries fill the party, as dream, reality, and hallucination blur for the young woman and the viewer.

Written and directed by Derek Quint, “Second Star” is the third in a collection of 17 short films known as the Vault Projections series. The Chicago-based indie company Addovolt Productions bankrolled the work, which is loosely inspired by J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” The connections are subtle (perhaps too subtle for anyone to realize without prompting), but once the suggestion is made, themes of being young and lost and the fantasy of an otherworldly Neverland materialize in the work. The intriguing, urban story, inspired by actual friends of the author’s, is relatively well-realized given its small, independent budget. Occasionally, the soundtrack distracts more than enhances the action on screen, but what is lacking in production value is made up for with the ambition of the storytellers. “Second Star” explores the power of human resilience and the danger of human delusion, as our imaginations create the warmth we can’t find in the world.

Watch the film and find updates about Addovolt Productions on their website: http://addovolt.blogspot.com/

Jukebox musicals have become as common as dancebreaks in the past decade. Popular songs of yesteryear are strung together with a loose story to create a Broadway show that feels more like a scrapbook of memories than something memorable in its own right. Given this musical landscape, it’s a rare treat top find a show with all new songs that feel as if you’ve magically tuned into a 1950s radio station. Joe Dipietro and David Bryan (of Bon Jovi keyboard fame) have penned such a treat. Powerful songs that channel the tone and changes of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll are driven by a surprisingly emotional book in their Tony Award-winning musical Memphis.


Huey Calhoun, an irreverent DJ played by the talented Bryan Fenkart, falls in love with “black music” and a black woman – Felicia (played by the sultry Ms. Boswell of the same name). Loosely based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, Huey’s passions wouldn’t pose a problem had he been born in the past 30 years. But Tennessee in the 1950s kept black and white separate, and Huey’s graying passions weren’t apropos. Of course, Huey was never one for conforming; with a wardrobe that pairs plaid, tie-dye, and Hawaiian prints, he lives to mix things up.

With his own radio show, Huey plays the music he adores on the radio, and gets the whole city dancing.  While integration laws were essential to enacting racial change, minds aren’t changed in Congress; they’re changed in dance halls and concert houses. Huey plays his part in racial integration by getting white folk singing and dancing to the songs of black folk, but in many ways, he was a bit ahead of his time.  He catches the attention of TV execs who like his style, but not the company he keeps. They’ll give him his own primetime show on black-and-white TV (wonderfully dramatized on stage) as long as the performers are all white. 

Not to spoil the story, but Memphis doesn’t fall victim to the happily-every-after, clichéd Broadway ending. The show doesn’t let the pieces come together perfectly for our hero, which makes it much more real and that much more heartbreaking.  Light-on-his-feet and easy-on-the-ears, Huey possess the power to be heard and the rare youthful energy that makes you believe anything is possible – whether it’s falling in love, becoming a star, or changing the world. But believing and achieving are two separate tasks.

Memphis is not a jukebox musical, but don't be surprised if you hear its songs on tomorrow’s jukeboxes.  They be blaring loudly and irreverently as young couples like Huey and Felicia dance, kiss, and cry to the beat.

Memphis plays at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 4, 2011. Additional information and tickets available at www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

A metropolis during the Great Depression, a beachfront home in California, and a chic upper class apartment in New York City are the settings for the three plays developed in this year's Steppenwolf First Looks series.  United in their focus on desire and pain, the frugally titled "Man in Love," "Want," and "Oblivion" feature memorable characters that are bold, engaging, and fundamentally unhappy. They hunt, crave, and search for meaning and joy, turning to others, within, and above. If and how they find it is addressed differently by each playwright, but together they reavel multiple quests for the same goal of sincere meaning in an insincere time.

A Killer Accomplishment by “Man in Love”

Set in a segregated metropolis during the Great Depression, “Man in Love” twists between six characters pursing their desires during a time of social and economic turmoil. A man released from prison searches for work, another pines for the attention of a beautiful, young student, and another man – a book stacker at the University of Chicago library – hunts for something much darker: squares of Black, female flesh.

Paul Pare, Jr., a soft-spoken Black serial killer, is the creation of Christina Anderson, a playwright schooled by Brown and the Yale School of Drama. Her goal for the play was to pen a period piece that follows these murders and tracks the society’s reactions to the deaths of Black women. Over the course of the play, Paul Pare, frighteningly played by Namir Smallwood, grows his numbers from 4 to 5 to 6, as squares of flesh appear in a stack on his wall. We’re offered a glimpse into the psyche of the disturbed, violent man during killer monologues, delivered under a piercing light and over a tense soundtrack.

Despite the importance of the murders in the play, it is not a television crime drama, but a more complicated exploration of desire and secrets in a time of raised tension. Perhaps the most fascinating character is Bernice – a woman who today might identify as transgendered – who throws parties for money and attention while only having a loose connection to the killer. Brilliantly embodied by Ryan Lanning, Bernice is a tall woman who seeks belonging even though she is not, as her friend remarks in a war of words, a “real woman.” In the post-show talkback, Artistic Director Martha Lavey remarked that everyone in the work is passing. Bernice passes as a woman, Paul Pare passes as an innocent man, and other characters pass as wealthy or as white. It is this shifting of identities – secret and public – which thematically connects the characters in a stronger way than plot can. In fact, the piece might be stronger if the killer never interacted with the other characters, letting their connections be solely those of setting and situation.

“Man in Love” tackles much – race, gender, class – and does so while remaining true to a collection of messy, complex individuals desperately searching for love in a flawed world. With historical accuracy and a gentle nuance, it is a bold new play that all the while feels somehow familiar. And that is a killer accomplishment.

 “Want,” a Funny Social Critique, Needs More

David, a charismatic “tough love” therapist (although he’d never answer to the title and doesn’t have any sort of license) has assembled a group of former addicts in a beachfront California home. The five residents live communally, working to overcome their addictions to food, drugs, and/or sex and put an end to suffering. They seem happy, having left behind their former lives for this separated paradise, but their comfortable rhythm is disrupted when a wild, young woman arrives and affirms that desire never fully dies.

Zayd Dohrn, a playwright, screenwriter, and teacher, was inspired to write “Want” after watching close friends struggle with addiction and flip-flop in and out of rehab. He witnessed their searches for happiness, belonging, and acceptance, all the while growing cynical about our capitalistic, consumer culture. “Want” is his fast-paced critique of that culture, as he unravels the authority of the leader David, perfectly realized by Mark L. Montgomery. An especially strong cast of talented veterans make the work engaging from the initial scene – Audrey Francis, as a tightly-wound ex-wife who craves meaning, Kendra Thulin as a former addict who craves sweets, and Mick Weber as a man questioning his profession and sexuality while craving acceptance. Weber’s Henry, the former attorney whose savings bankroll the operation, ends up being the most dynamic, engaging character – changing from a humorous, jovial house-ex-husband into an angry, bitter man by play’s end. The cast’s chemistry and commitment is palpable, although newcomer Janelle Kroll as the home’s newest resident misses several comedic moments and doesn’t carry the show as strongly as another might.

With such a sharp-edged critique, one might expect Dohrn to offer a solution to our contemporary, continual unhappiness. But an open-ended ending – which was still undergoing drafts up to the performance – doesn’t offer an easy answer, but also doesn’t quite feel true to the play. There’s a stronger ending hiding just beneath the surface that could be teased out by a “tough love” session or two. In truth, there’s something fascinating about struggling find the right ending in a play titled “Want;” perhaps embracing that struggle – maybe through abandoning realism – might give the piece a more satisfying close.

The characters in “Want” are engaging and strong, even when their wills aren’t. Their struggle for happiness is one every human endures, making the play linger long after craving fades.

Rebelling with Religion in “Oblivion”

Upper class Jewish parents Pam and Dixon want nothign more than for their only daughter to mature into an upstanding moral citizen of the world, someone who thinks for herself and always questions authority. So when their high schooler Julie repeatedly lies about sneaking away to a weekend church retreat, their open minds begin to close and their feet begin to come down.  This rebellious daughter isn't turnint to drugs or sex for fulfillment, but something her parents find even scarier: God. 

When raising a child, parents must choose which beliefs and values to pass on and how to go about that passing.  The process is made even more difficult for humanist parents, who do not rely on religious institutions to instruct their children in morality.  "How do I teach my child right and wrong?" "How do I punish them?"  "Should I?"  These questions take center stage in Carly Mensch’s newest play, “Oblivion," when two parents must confront the fear that they have failed their daughter.  Schooled at Julliard and working as a story editor for Weeds, Mensch creates a smart, humorous play which draws upon her own Jewish upbringing and disillusionment with religion and society.  Mensch writes for her generation, which she describes as “over-educated yet spiritually malnourished 20-somethings who fear they’re overdosing on the excesses of entertainment and media yet have no idea what to do about it.” Fiona Robert’s even-keeled Julie captures this duality: an extreme intelligence, yet base embracing of silly pleasures, a longing for more, and a contentment with the everyday.

Caught in the web of lies is Bernard: a quirky, Asian, aspiring filmmaker who worships a god of his own: film critic, Pauline Kael. His devotion to Pauline mirrors his friend Julie's search for meaning in a house of atheists.  Under Matt Miller’s clear and clever staging, “Oblivion” chronicles Julie’s forays into the church, as she tries on praying, baptism, and forgiveness. These explorations leave her parents behind, straining their marriage and forcing them to question just how much they believe in one another.

In the beautiful final scene, as Bernard plays his black-and-white first film for the family, there’s a quiet hope that the family will be alright. Bernard apologizes that first films are never that great since the maker has to learn as he or she goes. Perhaps that’s how we all live our lives, learning as we go how to behave, how to treat others, and how to find meaning. It's a messy exploration, but maybe we’ll perfect it the second time around. 


Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s newest play, “A Behanding in Spokane” is his first set in America. It’s still one of his characteristic black comedies – a label that means it okay to laugh at others’ pain and suffering – but it comes across the pond and centers on a one-handed man. The sweaty-headed Carmichael lost his hand to a bunch of hillbillies in Spokane, Washington, and he’s been searching for it for the past 27 years. The hillbillies he long ago found and disposed of, but his hand still eludes him. Profile’s production of the play, similarly, seems to be searching for something; it has many of the essential parts – a smart head and occasional heart – but it’s missing something I can’t quite put my finger on.

 The unfinished business of Carmichael (broodingly played by Darell W. Cox) brings him to a decrepit hotel for a promised transaction. An enterprising young couple (Levenix Riddle and Sara Greenfield tell Carmichael they have his hand, but they underestimate his intolerance for trickery and his capacity for violence. The hand-off plays out in real-time, with the young couple disagreeing on the con and ending up playing a twisted carnival game for their lives – tossing severed hands at a candle that is burning down to a bucket of gasoline. Caught in the middle is a delightfully naïve, but still flawed, receptionist, given a playful characterization by Eric Burgher.

At its core, A Behanding in Spokane is about justice and how it plays out between these four individuals – a man seeking revenge disregards the law, a young couple unethically try to swindle him, and a receptionist serves as an accidental judge with his own grievances. In the plot-heavy piece, McDonagh digs into how a grudge can consume and destroy a life, leaving it more mangled and blackened than a 27-year-old severed hand. But from a man obsessed with location (his play titles almost always include a geography: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Banshees of Inisheer), the placement of the play in America is not accidental. In his black comedy, he features a black character (the young Toby) and satirizes political correctness and confronts America’s racist past. Toby’s girlfriend Marilyn reprimands her captor, while he wields a gun, for his homophobia and use of racial epithets.  Her boyfriend is a bit more practical about the situation.  In short, he doesn’t mind being called a name if it means he doesn’t get murdered.

The relationship between this pair is what makes the piece lose its early momentum. Once Carmichael leaves the pair alone, the piece dips in intensity, focusing on the yelling of two young folks. Their screams and banter become a bit monotonous, although I/m not sure exactly I would react in the face of impending death. The layout of the Profiles Theatre storefront puts the audience close to the actors and on both sides of the stage. The effect is Brechtian – you’re never lost in the dream of a story, you’re constantly aware that the other half of the audience– and intimate – you’re close to the characters, which can be frightening with a villain like Carmichael or disappointing when a moment isn’t properly directed.

McDonagh’s repetitive dialogue, rhythmically perfected by a talented cast of 4, is a strong source of humor, but occasionally Snyder has directed his cast toward pathos rather than the laughs the author intended. In the face of such dark and tragic comedy, sometimes the only response is laughter – aided by the fact that these are fictional characters in an imagined situation. Even still, McDonagh’s impression of the United States are as dark as his comedy – we’re a violent, homophobic, racist people that have overcorrected by becoming PC and sensitive to the point of nonsense. How far off is his assessment? I had never heard of Spokane, Washington until McDonagh’s play, but I recently received an e-mail which referenced the city three times. In a list of recent LGBT hate crimes were the following:

- September 21, 2011: Steve Pfefferle, 38, was choked with a rope and repeatedly struck with a piece of metal by a man in Spokane, Washington after leaving Dempsey’s, a local gay bar.

- September 28, 2011: Michael Jepsen, 45, was hit, pushed, and called a “faggot” by a group of people outside Irv’s, a bar in Spokane, Washington.

- October 7, 2011: Danny Hawkins, a gay rights advocate, was asked if he was gay before being beaten by an unnamed man in Spokane, Washington after leaving a local gay bar.

And that’s nothing to laugh about.

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