One of the great pleasures of walking into a new production at Lookingglass Theatre Company’s space in the historic water pumping station on the Mag Mile is to see how the set will be configured. It’s different every time, so much so that it’s often difficult to imagine how the last show fit into the same space.
In the case of “Big Lake Big City,” the noir-ish detective comedy currently at Lookingglass, theatergoers will be tickled to discover a killer set by Sibyl Wickersheimer: a realistic-looking Chicago street, the geography of its irregular asphalt interrupted by rivulets of dirty water afloat with cigarette butts and crinkled leaves. Seated on either side of the action on tiers that descend to parallel curbs and park benches, theatergoers will find plenty to gaze at. If only the play itself were as engaging as the set.
This isn’t to say that the two hours and fifteen minutes won’t pass quickly or that there aren’t any laughs — chief among them a sight gag whereby a character with a screwdriver embedded in his head at a 45-degree angle flees the emergency room and attempts to disguise his injury by covering it with a Shriner’s fez (pitch-perfect costumes by Ana Kuzmanic). The problem is that the laughs — and the 38 rapid-fire scenes — don’t add up to much.
The chopped up scenes — the theatrical equivalent of ADHD — make it hard to attach meaning to the action. The blame for that — and perhaps some potential fixes — can be split between Chicago-based playwright Keith Huff, now writing up a storm on TV shows such as “Mad Men” and “House of Cards,” and director and founding ensemble member David Schwimmer, of “Friends” fame.
Too many of the lines — “We’re a kinder, gentler violent crimes unit” — evaporate after inducing a quick laugh. Not enough resonates. For comedy to take root as well as flight, it needs to attach itself to real human emotion, and for the most part “Big Lake Big City” doesn’t do that.
Huff’s script may be too episodic to allow for this, and Schwimmer’s directing — more like herding cats — doesn’t help the cast of capable actors find methods to interact in meaningful and believable ways. Indeed, the 10 actors almost seem to be appearing in different plays. It’s every actor for him- or herself, with not enough regard for continuity of tone.
The acting that works best in “Big Lake Big City” is the least campy. Eddie Martinez as Stewart Perez, the character with the screwdriver jutting out like a cowlick, brings a sweet earnestness to his role, especially in the scenes where he interacts with Wendy Mateo, who plays travel agent Maria Vasquez with a similar approach. Katherine Cunningham as Alexandria/Ally Podaris, a onetime call girl turned dental hygienist, lets the audience in for a peek at her heart as well as her dynamite body. Danny Goldring, as Detective Vince Getz —characterized in Lookingglass’ promotional materials as a knucklehead — plays successfully against that characterization.
Consistency of tone is a bigger problem for two of the leads, perhaps simply because they’re obliged to utter more of Huff’s sometimes inane lines than the others. Philip R. Smith, as Detective Bass Podaris (married to the hygienist), and Beth Lacke, as Susan Howren, MD (aka Dr. Grief), are fun to watch, but the comedy doesn’t stick.
Big Lake Big City
Through August 11, 2013
Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works at Michigan Ave. and Pearson, Chicago
Tickets $36 – $70 ($20 student tickets day of show): (312) 337-0665 or www.lookingglasstheatre.org
Photos: Liz Lauren