Illegal Use of Hands
At the American Blues Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Illegal Use of Hands” is set in an old house in rural America. It’s the middle of the night in late October. As the lights go up, we see an old man reading in an armchair while rock music blares away. Suddenly there is a banging on the front door and two young men barge in.
Thus begins the world premiere of James Still’s 80-minute play, “Illegal Use of Hands” at the American Blues Theater. Those opening moments establish a tone of menace and uncertainty that takes the viewer into early Harold Pinter territory. Regrettably, the atmosphere of unease doesn’t amount to much. Along the way we hear much solid realistic dialogue mixed in with portentous comments that tease the audience into anticipating an emotional, revelatory payoff that never arrives.
The spectator learns that the young men, Roy and Cody, have just returned from the high school homecoming football game which the local school lost, 77-0. Roy wants to use the old man’s phone to call his girl friend for a ride back to town. The football defeat has put Roy into a foul mood. Cody acts as a pacifier, trying to temper Roy’s belligerence toward the old man.
It turns out that Roy and Cody once attended the local high school and starred on a football team that almost won a championship. While crashing the school homecoming dance earlier that night, Roy stole the second place trophy the team received that championship year. Roy is still bitter that a questionable referee’s call cost the team a touchdown and the game. Roy blames the referee for everything that’s gone wrong in his life since, and plenty has gone wrong.
Photo by Johnny Knight
The play is peppered with hints of deeper matters submerged beneath the small talk and bickering. Roy thinks the old man may be the referee who made the call that ruined the rest of his life. It’s disclosed that Cody is gay and is just passing through the town. He may have spent jail time elsewhere and seems rootless. Roy fastens onto him as a lifeline to his younger and happier days and insists he remain in town where the two could start a business together, a ludicrous idea that Cody dismisses out of hand. The old man’s phone rings periodically, but who is at the other end? The man says it’s his wife keeping tabs on him, but she’s dead, so do we have a ghost story as a subplot? And periodically, the realistic real-time tone of the play is broken up by lights and sounds that suggest a high school football game, creating a jarring Twilight Zone effect that distracts without informing.
Several minutes of the play are consumed by the old man teaching Roy and Cody the protocol of properly drinking good scotch. It’s an amusing interlude but takes the narrative nowhere.
Ultimately the play comes down to dual portraits of Roy and Cody as losers, men who experienced their best years in high school. Roy in particular is a lost soul, his love life in tatters and his future dismal. The mysterious and reticent Cody at least kept on the move, though his future prospects don’t look promising. The old man ends the play as he started, living in apparent contentment isolated with his reading and his music. The invasion by the two young men is just a blip on his personal radar, forgotten as soon as the troubled younger men depart.
playwright never establishes credible relationships among the three characters.
I kept waiting for a revelation that the old man actually was the referee that
fateful game, or he had some hidden connection with one or both of his house
crashers that explodes at the end of the play. But the show doesn’t rise to any
climax. The tensions build into the virtual home invasion by Roy and Cody never
develop. Roy starts out as menacing and possibly dangerous and ends up
pathetic. He has to carry the play because neither the old man nor Cody is
three-dimensional enough to flesh out the play’s narrative
The American Blues Theater gives Still’s play its best shot. Dennis Zacek, late the artistic director of the Victory Gardens Theatre, shows he still has his acting chops as the old man forced to host the two uninvited visitors. Steve Key is solid as Cody, the elusive personality who is an ill-defined presence in the story. He’s gay, but so what? He left town years ago to lead a life of apparent failure. In Key’s performance, Cody comes across as intelligent and articulate, though wound tight emotionally. Why had he gone so wrong and why has he returned, even briefly, to the town on homecoming night? Howie Johnson steals much of the play because Roy is the most dominating of the three characters. Johnson delivers a many sided performance as Roy the loose cannon and the sad sack trying to figure out where and why his life went wrong and how he can face a bleak future.
The play’s title refers to a penalty in football. Presumably that’s the penalty the referee called that Roy thinks costs him his championship and his future, but that’s just a guess.
Sandy Shinner’s directing makes the most of Still’s often sharp dialogue and maximizes the flashpoint conflicts that pop up from time to time. It’s not her fault the script suggests much and resolves little. Grant Sabin has designed a fine domestic interior set, pure 1950’s small town Americana. There is good complementary design work from Samantha C. Jones (costumes), Charlie Cooper (lighting), and Lindsay Jones (sound and original music).
“Illegal Use of Hands” runs through September 30 at the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $19 to $39. Call 312 725 4228 or visit www.americanbluestheater.com.
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It’s A Wonderful Life:
Live at the Biograph
At the American Blues Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – There are now three adaptations of the motion picture “It’s a Wonderful Life” on area stages for the holidays. The show has become Chicagoland’s twenty-first century answer to “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker.”
The American Blues Theater was the first theater company to convert the film into a drama and its version has been the role model for the other productions. The ABT adapts the story as a radio broadcast in 1946, the year the movie came out, with the theater audience serving as the studio audience. A small ensemble of actors plays dozens of characters with a shift in voice, an on-stage sound effects man providing the appropriate noises enhance the action. The result is an exercise in nostalgia in the service of one of the most affectionately remembered stories in American pop culture.
The ABT is presenting “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the Richard Christiansen Theater at the Biograph Theater, the home of the Victory Gardens company. It’s a good venue for this intimate show, with the audience only a few feet from the performers. To engage the spectators more fully in the dramatization, the actors lead a sing-along of holiday-oriented songs and read messages from the audience, most of them ostentatiously sentimental, just like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” To enhance the sense of immediacy, the radio broadcast includes singing commercials that advertise businesses in the neighborhood.
But all this is just the framework for the saga of George Bailey, resident of the mid-America town of Bedford Falls, and how he finds the true meaning of Christmas. The play opens in heaven, where an angel second class named Clarence is assigned to save Bailey from suicide after the mortal finds his world collapsing around him. Clarence takes George back through his life, showing the positive impact Bailey had on his community.
fantasy has become an icon of American pop culture, like “The Wizard of Oz.”
It’s corny and manipulative, but also irresistible. The audience may begin its
viewing experience amused at the re-creation of the live radio broadcast but
once the tale begins, the power of the story takes over and by the end of the
evening the spectators were entranced by a narrative most of them probably knew
The ABT staging started a little slow, at least on opening night, and the on-stage sound effects were often barely audible. The sound effects man, presiding over his assemblage of noise-making brick-a-brac, should be, but wasn’t, the chief visual amusement of the production.
The performances are well up to the mark, with five actors and two actresses shifting from individual characters to crowds without a hitch. John Mohrlein returns as the nasty Henry Potter, in the true Lionel Barrymore incarnation of the villain. It’s a role Mohrlein was born to play and it would be fascinating to see the actor play Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” He would bring a new dimension to the grouchy old skinflint.
Kevin Kelly is fine in the Jimmy Stewart role of George Bailey, rising to genuine dramatic heights toward the end of the story as Bailey hits emotional bottom before being saved by all the people he helped during a life that turns out to be well worth living. Ed Kross, a shamefully underused actor in area theater, plays the announcer among others with his usual comic buoyancy. Ashley Bishop and Gwendolyn Whiteside play all the females in the story, from little kids to a hooker and a couple of senior citizen mothers. Andrew Carter and James Joseph effectively round out the enthusiastic, versatile, and hard working ensemble. Austin Cook provides the continuous musical accompaniment from an onstage piano.
Marty Higginbotham directed the first ABT production and he returns for 2010 and hopefully for many years in the future. He understands how to make the show work, especially for spectators with a large tolerance for touchy feely sentiment. Grant Sabin designed the set, Samantha Jones the period costumes, Katy Peterson the lighting, Higginbotham the sound, and Bobby Richards the projections, including the lyrics for the sing-along.
Wonderful Life” runs through December 31 at the Biograph Theater, 2433 North
Lincoln Avenue. Most performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and
Sunday at 3 p.m., with some additional performances added. Tickets are $32
through $40. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org . Dec. 2010
The show gets a rating of three stars.
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