Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Promises, Promises
Blank Theatre Company
Review by Karen Topham

Also see Karen's reviews of Boop! and Sleeping with Beauty

Rory Schrobilgen and Brandy Miller
Photo by Eli Van Sickel/Vancap Images
I'm of two minds after seeing Blank Theatre Company's production of Promises, Promises, Neil Simon's 1968 musical featuring songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David:

  1. This is another in a seemingly endless series of excellent productions by this tiny itinerant off-Loop company and a lovely showcase for a late legend's music by some top-notch performers
  2. Why on earth would anyone choose to produce this frightfully dated, misogynistic, outrageous celebration of male chauvinism in 2023?

Based on the 1960 Billy Wilder movie The Apartment, Promises, Promises tells the story of Chuck Baxter (Rory Schrobilgen), a nice young man who is trying to build a career in a company almost exclusively populated by lechers, liars and lotharios. It doesn't take long before the resident scumbags peg Chuck for the sweet, virginal pushover he is, and when they discover that he happens to have a small apartment close to the office, they pounce on the opportunity to use it for their dalliances. (The sexual prowess of these men, played by Eddie Ledford, Andres J. Deleon, Reginald Hemphill, and Ed Rutherford, may be best illustrated by the fact that they tell him they will only need the place for forty minutes, maybe even twenty. What lucky women they have their eyes on for their dalliances!)

Chuck, in his own sweet way, has fallen in love with a secretary, Fran Kubelik (Brandy Miller), but he lacks the wherewithal to ask her out. Unfortunately, that is not the case for the company's number one debaucher, J.D. Sheldrake (Craig Zeller), who is currently making her the latest in a long line of female employees to whom he has claimed he will soon be divorcing his wife. Zeller plays Sheldrake with enough slime that you both know what he is the second you meet him and wonder how these women fall for his sleaze, especially the completely genuine Fran. (I know, I know: it was the era. But that doesn't make it any more comfortable to watch.)

There is plenty of humor in this play, courtesy of two key decisions by Simon. First, he builds the show around a series of monologues by the legitimately likable, self-deprecating Chuck, which Schrobilgen uses both to build the character and to endear himself to the audience. Second, especially in Act Two, he gives more and more focus to the one clear comic character here, Kingsley Day's Dr. Dreyfuss, who lives next door to Chuck and has quite naturally assumed that the sexual sounds coming from Chuck's apartment (made by Chuck's colleagues using his place) are Chuck himself. (It's a running joke that the good doctor believes his virginal neighbor is a sex addict.) Kingsley is perfect here: his dry sarcasm builds throughout the play, eliciting more and more laughter from the audience with every appearance.

The humor masks the depravity–unless you think about it. At one point, Sheldrake's lying promises leave Fran so despondent that she tries to kill herself and is saved only by a fluke; there is nothing funny about that, though Simon manages to wring some laughter from Dr. Dreyfuss's mistaken comments about Chuck's sexual activities. The playwright himself seems to realize this, as he allows an erstwhile minor character, Miss Olson (Stephanie Stockstill), who was Sheldrake's latest victim until Fran came along, to stand up to this wannabe Don Juan and bring him down. (It's hard to believe he will stay down, though, for the same reason that his womanizing works in the first place: it's the era.)

There is also plenty of good music in this show (of course–it's Bacharach and David), the most memorable of which is the classic "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," sung as a lovely duet by Fran and Chuck. All of these performers have strong voices–musical director Aaron Kaplan has a lot to work with–and Bacharach's use of a pop-like wall of sound, created mostly by the female cast members, is fun and inventive.

The cast also includes some wonderful dancers. The trio of Dayle Theisen, Flower Wang, and Isabella Barry is featured frequently (most notably in "Turkey Lurkey Time," the weird tribute to Christmas that serves as a touchstone to remind us of the seasonal connection this musical has), and choreographer Lauryn Solana Schmelzer has lots of fun devising dances for them. The stage at Greenhouse Theater Center is narrow and tiny, but a company that has been performing at the even smaller Reginald Vaughn Theatre on Thorndale feels right at home there. (Maybe too much so: the marginally greater width here allows Kapinos and lighting designer Emma Luke to play with focus lights, which get tiresome, for Chuck's many monologues.)

It's a lot to deal with in such a small, oddly shaped space, but Kapinos does an admirable job of controlling things, taking advantage both of his cast and Spencer Donovan's set design, which contains a few surprises. The show itself is a lot to deal with, too, for this reviewer. Do I recommend it, based on the performances, the direction, and the choreography, all of which certainly deserve a recommendation? Or do I allow my modern sensibilities to rule the day and pan it because of the contemptible conduct of so many of its (male) characters? In the end, I will make the choice I usually make in such circumstances and reward the actors and design team while holding my nose against the ugliness of much of the material.

Promises, Promises, runs through December 31, 2023, from Blank Theatre Company at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 W. Lincoln, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit