Chicago Theater Review: BIG LAKE BIG CITY (Lookingglass)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 30, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Chicago to the broken bricks and bone, playwright Keith Huff was at his storytelling best in A Steady Rain, a big hit about a conflicted cop and his crooked crony at Chicago Dramatists (and a lesser one on Broadway). In Huff’’s taut mix of interrogations turned confessionals, two policemen served but didn’t protect. A dark world got scoured under glaring lights. A Steady Rain was as real as it gets and as good as we deserve.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of BIG LAKE BIG CITY at Lookingglass Theatre CompanyDoggedly staged by company member and former “friend” David Schwimmer, Lookingglass Theatre Company’s world premiere is a different beast. This 140 minute actors’ showcase — a teleplay in three dimensions — is lumbered with too many characters and locations. It’s also overwritten into a witch’s brew of parody and homage: Flights of hard-boiled dialogue spoof film noir, co-existing uneasily with floridly sincere love scenes. Shock effects aim for the gag reflex. Improbable twists and impossible reversals turn action into animation, plausibility into a cartoon. Worst of all, characters defined by their quirks and stunted by their stereotypes suddenly beg for unearned sympathy. The holes in their hearts are as obvious as the explanatory back stories are absent.

But then, as one character says (unwittingly anticipating the audience), “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of BIG LAKE BIG CITY at Lookingglass Theatre CompanyThirty-eight scenes congeal into a group portrait of Windy City survivors. Each seems glimpsed at the low (morally and practically) ebbs of their clichéd lives. The most complete character is Philip R. Smith’s anguished cop. Detective “Bass” Podaris finds himself in the thick of every cesspool on stage. Diagnosed by the T.V. shrink (Beth Lacke), who later replaces his wife in every way as suffering from a “head up your ass” disorder, he’s burdened with a penchant for arresting badasses who get exonerated and seek revenge. His baggage, emotional and actual, includes a clueless and soft-headed partner (Danny Goldring) and an airhead spouse and dental hygienist (Katherine Cunningham) who betrays him with a rogue doctor and mortician (Kareem Bandealy). The latter two join forces and commit a series of mind-bogglingly impossible criminal acts.

Podaris’ current and very cinematic chase is after two siblings who ain’t brotherly. Stalwart construction worker Trent Perez (J. Salome Martinez) is a goofball good guy who’s been done dirt by his feckless to worthless punk brother Stewart (Eddie Martinez). In retaliation for Stewie’s shtupping his wife, Trent drives a screwdriver into his brother’s peabrain, which gives Stewie redemptive hallucinations and causes double takes from everyone who sees him (since no one is able to catch a jerk with a major brain injury, whether in a police station, hospital, O’Hare airport concourse, or, where he finally succumbs, the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier). For bad measure a crack-brained insurance investigator (Thomas J. Cox) is pursuing two double-crossing adulterers supposedly burned to a crisp in a Lincoln Avenue motel.

Here, other people’s pain is grounds for unabashed hilarity. Lighten up already, and be glad it’s not you!

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of BIG LAKE BIG CITY at Lookingglass Theatre CompanyFar more concerned with pulling surprises than ringing true, Big Lake Big City teems with a rogues’ gallery of unlovable losers, each spouting anything-for-a-laugh dumbass dialogue. Which, of course, means it’s crammed with mean-spirited sight gags: A head in a plastic bag that’s kicked around by twisted morgue workers; a burnt corpse that falls apart when embraced; a flunky whose shattered shinbone is repeatedly kicked for sadistic humor; facial slaps so loud they’d register on a Richter scale; a dental exam to make you spit up; a blood-spattering shootout; and, of course, Stewie’s brain-breaking screwdriver which he gallantly tries to hide in a fez he stole from a Shriner. If you find this funny, you need help, not theater.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of BIG LAKE BIG CITY at Lookingglass Theatre CompanyIf the threadbare first act can’t settle down long enough to tell a story, with so many subplots chasing their tails, the second act flounders on Method-ridden, film-noir histrionics, the hyper excess that killed vaudeville. It clearly doesn’t matter to Huff: His unlikely narrator is a $53 million bust by Modigliani (a major target for larceny in action). The stone head expounds the author’s play-ending apologia: Humans are miserable creatures subject to stupidity and incapable of love. Well, you can’t say you weren’t warned, however retroactively. Misanthropes will no doubt flock to Michigan Avenue between now and August 11 to see this nasty business.

Schwimmer’s very game cast of ten vintage Chicago actors is always on top of a bottom-feeding, hit-and-run play. They each rise to the occasion — but then that’s two to six inches at best. Showing off is this theater’s richly rewarded guilty pleasure: The acting ranges from rabid overkill to, only too rarely, downhome decent.

As always with Lookingglass, the mess remains a feast for the eyes, with authentic Chicago props like the Navy Pier compartment waxing magically realistic. Christine A. Binder’s lighting makes Sibyl Wickersheimer’s runway set a delicious distraction from an exercise in ugliness. If life really is “one damn thing after another,” Huff’s folly had to slouch to Chicago to be born. That doesn’t mean you have to see it.

photos by Liz Lauren

Big Lake Big City
Lookingglass Theatre Company
scheduled to end on August 25, 2013
for tickets, call (312) 337-0665 or visit

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