Few big laughs in Keith Huff’s ‘Big Lake Big City’
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org June 30, 2013 10:18PM
‘BIG LAKE BIG CITY’
When: Through Aug. 11
Where: Lookingglass Theatre at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
Info: (312) 337-0665; www.lookingglasstheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Updated: August 2, 2013 6:22AM
‘There is no Easy Street in Chicago,” proclaims a character in Keith Huff’s new mock noir comedy “Big Lake Big City,” now receiving a flashy if unsatisfying world premiere by Lookingglass Theatre.
Given Huff’s own story, the Easy Street assessment is not entirely accurate. In 2007, as a relatively unknown playwright with a full-time day job, Huff made a huge splash with “A Steady Rain,” a feverish two-hander about a pair of Chicago cops locked in a blood-brother relationship that upended them both. What began as a modestly produced but brilliantly acted Chicago Dramatists production eventually morphed into a life-changer for Huff, as the play eventually landed on Broadway (with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman garnering huge attention, even if they were woefully miscast), and paved the way for a high-profile Hollywood career for Huff, including work on “Mad Men.”
Now “Big Lake Big City,” directed by David Schwimer, arrives as the third play about Chicago cops in what Huff promised would be a trilogy (a neo-gothic monologue, “The Detective’s Wife,” was staged a few years ago by Writers’ Theatre). And in both scale and style it is a very different piece of work, with faux-noir dialogue replacing Huff’s previously dense narrative writing, and a cast of 10 populating a heavily plotted tale of Windy City thugs, doctors, detectives, unfaithful spouses, insurance adjusters and an array of Latino characters in a variety of predicaments.
And oh yes, there also is my favorite character — an elegantly carved sculpture of a woman’s head by Modigliani, that ever-impoverished Italian modernist artist whose work recently sold at auction for $53 million. Witnessing the madness that unspools around it, the sculpture (heard in an Italian-accented voice-over) wonders: “Why do people lose their heads?”
The madness begins as a pair of old school police detectives, Podaris (Philip R. Smith), and Getz (Danny Goldring), are dressed down for using strong-arm tactics that resulted in a violent criminal (Anthony Fleming III), and a slew of others being sprung from jail. As it happens, Podaris is now married to the thug’s ex-girlfriend, Ally (Katherine Cunningham, terrific), a girl with a va-va-va-voom body, a volatile streak and a long history of remaking herself with jobs ranging from “escort” to pedicurist to dental hygienist.
Unhappy in her marriage, Ally takes up with Peter (Kareem Bandealy), a disgraced doctor who now works in a morgue, and whose teeth she cleans. Peter just happens to be married to Susan (the excellent Beth Lacke, another looker), a hugely successful doctor and TV advice guru known as Dr. Grief, who is the owner of the Modigliani. Susan also is the physician on duty when Stewart Perez (Eddie Martinez), a rather mild-mannered criminal with a loyal brother, Trent (J. Salome Martinez), arrives in the ER with a screwdriver lodged in his skull in such a way that he can still function. Stewart quickly heads out on the lam (the tool covered by a Shriner’s fez) and romances travel agent Maria (the very funny Wendy Mateo). And this is just the start of the story.
Huff has devised some classic as well as zanily offbeat characters, and given them a number of fast and funny lines. But the whole thing devolves into a sort of freak-show circus full of goofy, largely adolescent humor. The cast, which also includes Thomas J. Cox, is more than game. And Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set design (including a Navy Pier ferris wheel car) is big-city industrial, with Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes capturing high-low Chicago fashion. But for all the manic energy generated, there is precious little impact.