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Chicago by John Olson

Big Lake Big City
Lookingglass Theatre Company


Philip R. Smith, Beth Lacke and Eddie Martinez
Chicago playwright Keith Huff, who scored big with A Steady Rain on Broadway (where it starred Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig) and has been working in TV on the likes of "Mad Men" and "House of Cards," is back with this world premiere directed by David Schwimmer. As with A Steady Rain and his The Detective's Wife, Huff is again in the world of the Chicago Police Department, but this time approaching it from a darkly comic viewpoint.

His everyman detective is one Bastion ("Bass") Podaris, a veteran cop in the midst of his second marriage—this time to a sexy but insecure dental hygienist with a checkered career history. He's just had one of his collars released from custody after the testimony of psychologist Susan Howren made the case appear to be a setup. Bass has the usual station house sidekicks we know well from police dramas: older partner Vince Getz, the "good cop" to Bass's bad cop; and a demanding, by-the-book captain. Action moves from the police station to other locales around the city. Dr. Howren—living the good life in an elegant apartment with her husband Peter, a forensic pathologist working in the Cook County Morgue—is shown to have some marital difficulties of her own. Their plans for a night on the town are interrupted when she gets a call from Maria Vasquez, a patient up north in Skokie who has overdosed on her meds and has just shot both her philandering boyfriend and the girlfriend with whom he's cheating. And on a construction site somewhere in town, we meet brothers Stewart and Trent Perez. Stewart's an ex-on out on parole, who has been given a job by his construction foreman brother. After we see what a generally hapless screw-up Stewart is, he goads Trent into a fight and ends up with an industrial sized screwdriver lodged in his skull. All these events and characters initially seem unconnected to each other, but by the close of the first act, previous relationships are revealed and new ones formed so that these people of Huff's play are all tied to each other in ways that connect back to the thug Elton Moss.

This structure gives Schwimmer and company the chance for some showy stagecraft and clever character work. Lookingglass' stage configuration this time around is alley style, with elevated platforms above each end of the stage. Action moves quickly between the many scene changes of Sibyl Wickersheimer's clever scenic design, which, together with Christine Binder's lighting, takes us to hotel rooms both elegant and seedy, the morgue, the construction site, the station house, the doctor's condo, and even the Navy Pier Ferris wheel.

The Chicagoans portrayed are variations on familiar types. Philip A. Smith is an exasperated Bass, slowly losing his battle to cope with his job as well as his ex and current wives. Beth Lacke as Dr. Howren is a Hitchcock blonde, all icy professionalism ultimately worn down during her encounters with Bass. Bass' second wife, Ally, is the quintessential dumb bimbo, but Katherine Cunningham gets beyond the stereotype to show the woman's feelings. Dr. Howren's husband Peter, formerly a cardiologist who lost his license after a malpractice law suit, is shown to have self-esteem issues in his reduced status and income as a pathologist in a multi-layered portrayal by Kareem Bandealy.

The screwdriver-adorned ex-con Stewart is given a funny and touching portrayal by Eddie Martinez, and we get a sense of his brother Trent's frustration yet love for his misfit sibling, thanks to J. Salomé Martinez' performance. The overdosing murderess Maria is stereotypical, but carried off well by Wendy Mateo. Danny Goldring is charmingly amused and amusing as the old partner who's seen it all, while Anthony Fleming III is equally menacing in his dual roles as the criminal Elston Moss and the detective captain.

Schwimmer keeps the action moving cinematically across all the various scenes, and he leads the cast in snappy, funny delivery of Huff's quips, though he and Huff fail to give the piece a consistent tone. Initially, it is satiric and darkly comic, a nightmarish, absurd vision of the pressures on a man in a profession where he has to deal with the worst of humanity. It all works well enough in the 80-minute first act. The range of characters and locales, the sharp acting, and the frequently funny dialogue and situations make the intentionally improbable tale quite entertaining. In the second act, though, Huff seems to lose his way. The humor falls into Naked Gun-like parody at times and even stoops into meta-theatrical humor at one point. Rather than building to a satisfying conclusion, it fizzles out. You get the sense that Huff just ran out of time and had to finish the piece up to make a deadline. Sadly, we're left with more of a "huh, what was that?" rather than an appreciation of his clever concept and surprising plot twists. Still, there's something good here than needs some more work. Given the industry's interest in Huff, it seems likely he'll get the opportunity to do that work and give Big Lake Big City another life somewhere on stage or screen.

Big Lake Big City will play through August 11, 2013, at Lookingglass Theatre Company, in the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. For ticket information visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org, visit the box office or call 312-337-0665.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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