Big Lake Big City
Now extended through August 25th!
Incoherent script can’t settle on tone or even genre
|Lookingglass Theatre presents|
|Big Lake Big City|
Review by Patrick Dyer
In the world of cinema, a new term has emerged over the last decade when defining films that have large ensemble casts, intertwining storylines, and in some cases non-linear narratives: “hyperlink cinema.” Films of this type include the Oscar-winning “Crash”, “Traffic”, “Magnolia”, and pretty much anything by Robert Altman. They’re an exciting challenge for writers, but in the wrong hands these “hyperlink” works can end up a mess. Playwright Keith Huff (A Steady Rain) and Lookingglass co-founder and “Friends” alum David Schwimmer bring this storytelling approach to the Lookingglass in Huff’s latest play Big Lake Big City, creating an evening of “hyperlink theatre” to coin a phrase. But does it succeed?
The play is actually three separate stories, intertwined together, taking place in the Windy City of today. The hard-nosed Detective Bass Podaris (Philip R. Smith) along with his partner hired on the case of attempted murder between two brothers, Trent (J. Salome Martinez) and Stewart Perez (Eddie Martinez), where Trent impaled a screwdriver into Stewart’s head after he bragged about having an affair with Trent’s wife. Stewart amazingly manages to escape from the hospital with the screwdriver still impaled deep into his skull (hidden only by a stolen Shriner fez) and flees with a travel agent, Maria (Wendy Mateo), all while a mysterious gangbanger Moss (Andrew Fleming III) chases him down. While that’s going on, Bass’s airhead wife Ally (Katherine Cunningham) is on the run with the disturbed mortician Peter (Kareem Bandealy) where he himself escapes from his loveless marriage with his psychiatrist wife Susan (Beth Lacke). Susan develops a sporadic romance with Bass after we find out something tragic about their two elopers by the end of Act I. And all of this chaos centers around one prop: a stone head bust by Modigliani who serves as the play’s narrator and philosopher (through voiceover).
Oddly enough, the problem with Big Lake Big City lies not so much in this incredibly complex and fast-paced plot, but in its execution. Huff’s script is, to put it bluntly, a mess: too many scenes too count, too many locations, and even too many characters. You could say, then, that this is more of a rough draft and just needs more polishing, right? Sadly, no. This play doesn’t even count as a first draft since it can’t decide on a tone, genre, or overall message. Act I starts off as a rather sadistic dark comedy masquerading as farce, with characters doing grotesque and unbelievable things that only shocks the audience rather than engage them – like morticians playing golf with corpses’ heads, Bass trying to sadistically pull the screwdriver out of Stewart’s head, Stewart himself arrogantly admitting to cheating on Trent’s wife (at work no less), and an insurance agent getting kicked repeatedly in his already damaged shin for cheap laughs. But then Act II rolls around, and Huff suddenly decides to turn the play into a noir crime thriller a la “Law & Order”, with bad plot twist after bad plot twist. And on top of all that, scenes zoom by so quickly that almost none of it is allowed to register for the audience. Needless to say, Big Lake Big City is unforgettable, but that’s not always a good thing.
Schwimmer seems to be aware of the script’s faults, so he throws everything he can at the audience with characters running around, thick fog pouring out onstage (which is not polite to those sitting in the first row I found out), gunfire, massive set pieces, and even remote-controlled toy cars simulating an actual car chase. It’s like a very bizarre circus. The only thing missing: the ringleader. Lookingglass is the place for Spectacle Theater, and the production does have some inspired technical moments, like having a Navy Pier Ferris Wheel carriage that hangs above the audience and slowly lowers for the final scene. But technical innovation means very little if the storyline has no consistency or the characters have little investment.
The acting is competent enough to meet the demands of Huff’s messy script and Schwimmer’s unsure direction. Everyone is energized, but none of them look entirely invested in what’s going on. The problem is that the production is so confused as to what it is, what it’s trying to say, and who it’s trying to appeal to that the performances only add to the mean-spirited nature of the piece. Characters do and say such horrible things to each other that it’s pretty much impossible to be invested as so much unpleasantness is thrown at you in every single scene. Add a distasteful monologue at the end by the talking stone head about how humanity is just chaotic and stupid with no capacity for love, and you get a play that’s not only overwrought and underwritten, but pretentious and misanthropic.
Based on Huff’s more successful work like “Mad Men” and A Steady Rain, I’d like to call this just a bad play, an unfortunate bump in the road for an otherwise promising writer. After all, every writer writes at least one flop (even Shakespeare had his off days). Big Lake Big City is a concept too large with not enough thought and far too much instinct. Gimmicks, shock effects, terrible one-liners, and misanthropic mindsets don’t make an impactful piece of art nor do they make an engaging evening at the theater. “Hyperlink theater” can be a new realm for emerging playwrights to explore, but hopefully they’ll do it with more precision and passion.
Big Lake Big City continues through
August 11th August 25th at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan (map), with performances Tuesdays/Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays at 3pm and 7:30pm, Fridays at 7:30pm, and Saturdays/Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $36-$70, and are available by phone (312-337-0665) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LookingglassTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
Kareem Bandealy (Peter and others), Thomas J. Cox (Divot and others), Katherine Cunningham (Ally), Anthony Fleming III (Moss and others), Danny Goldring (Getz), Beth Lacke (Susan), Eddie Martinez (Stewart), J. Salome Martinez (Trent and others), Wendy Mateo (Maria), Philip R. Smith (Bass)
behind the scenes
David Schwimmer (director), Narda E. Alcorn (stage manager), Joel Hobson (production manager), Sean K. Walters (technical director), Sibyl Wickersheimer (scenic design), Ana Kuzmanic (costume design), Christine A. Binder (lighting design), Rick Sims (sound design, composer), Maria DeFabo (props design), Liz Lauren (photos)