Chicago Theater Review: ILLEGAL USE OF HANDS (American Blues Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on September 7, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


James Still’s 80-minute play, Illegal Use of Hands, set in an old rural-American home, opens in the middle of a late-October night; an old man is reading in an armchair while rock music blares away, when suddenly there is a banging on the front door and two young men barge in. 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 in American Blues Theater’s production of this world premiere play. Along the way, there is an abundance of solid and realistic dialogue mixed in with portentous comments that tease the audience into anticipating an emotional, revelatory payoff—but it never arrives.

The young men, Roy and Cody, once attended the local high school and starred on a football team that almost won a championship. On this particular night, they have just returned from the homecoming football game which the local high school lost, 77-0. Roy, in a foul mood from the defeat, wants to use the old man’s phone to call his girlfriend for a ride back to town; when he becomes belligerent towards the old man, Cody acts as pacifier. While crashing the school dance earlier that night, Roy stole the second place trophy the team received that championship year; he is still bitter that a questionable referee’s call cost the team a touchdown and the game, and blames the referee for everything that’s gone wrong in his life since, and plenty has gone wrong.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Illegal Use of Hands, American Blues Theatre in Chicago

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; Cody, who is just passing through the town, may have spent jail time elsewhere and seems rootless; Roy fastens onto Cody as a lifeline to his younger and happier days and insists he remain in town to begin a business; and when the old man’s phone rings periodically, he says it’s his wife keeping tabs on him, but she’s dead, so do we have a ghost story as a subplot? An amusing interlude occurs when the old man teaches Roy and Cody the protocol of properly drinking good scotch, but this also takes the narrative nowhere. 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.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Illegal Use of Hands, American Blues Theatre in ChicagoUltimately 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.

The playwright never establishes credible relationships among the three characters. And with no revelations, hidden connections, or climax, the tensions built into the virtual home invasion by Roy and Cody never develop. Roy starts out as menacing and possibly dangerous and ends up pathetic, and neither the old man nor Cody is three-dimensional enough to flesh out the play’s narrative—which means that none of the characters carries the play.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Illegal Use of Hands, American Blues Theatre in Chicago

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; in Key’s performance, Cody comes across as intelligent and articulate, though wound tight emotionally. Howie Johnson steals much of the play because Roy is the most dominating of the three characters; he delivers a many-sided performance.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Illegal Use of Hands, American Blues Theatre in Chicago

Sandy Shinner’s direction 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 (Kelli Marino is the dramaturg). 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). 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.

photos by Johnny Knight

Illegal Use of Hands
American Blues Theatre
Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater
ends on September 30, 2012
for tickets, call 312 725 4228 or visit American Blues

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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