Post image for Theater Review: COLD TOWN/HOTLINE: A CHICAGO HOLIDAY STORY (Raven Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on December 7, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


For dogged seekers of sentimentality for whom The Gift of the Magi or It’s A Wonderful Life are insufficient tinsel treacle, help is on the way! You will love Raven Theatre’s unashamedly heartwarming, aggressively feel-good Cold Town/Hotline: A Chicago Holiday Story.

An 80-minute world premiere written and directed by Eli Newell, this one-act is the dramatic equivalent of a dreidel next to a Yule log surrounded by chestnuts roasting beneath some stuffed stockings.

Set in Chicago’s North Side during the week before Christmas 1983, the Yule Connection is an annual two-week-long holiday hotline. It predictably deals with the crises and calamities of a season that’s often no warmer than its weather. “It’s better to give than to receive” is the motto in this countdown to Christmas.

To add to the support group’s sense of embattlement, a cold wave with subzero temperatures is turning the town into a killing field.

In this believable workplace well-detailed by set designer Milo Blue, the service’s founder and her four volunteers help strangers cope with the multifaceted Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/atheist blues. Sheila (Robin Margolis) is the long-term, no-nonsense, control-freak manager who keeps the coffee coming and the workers in line. For Sheila their phone therapy requires empathetically engaging the client and leaving with a moral  “takeaway.”

Manning (or “person-ing”) the phones is bubbly Betty (Jeanne T. Arrigo) whose confessional style of helping the callers strikes veteran Larry (Dennis Garcia) as counter-productive. (“Stick to the script”and don’t share your story!) Efficient to a fault (no more than 15 minutes per call), Larry likes to bet on, of all things, who can handle the most cases without getting hanged up on (from what we see during these rather slow sessions that’s not much of a competition). Sweet-tempered, fresh-faced Annie is a 26-year-old, Reagan-supporting religious lady. The youngest volunteer is ambitious college kid Bruce (Sam Linda), here to replenish his resumé and maybe learn about life.

Newell confidently conveys the trappings of his tale. It’s hard to doubt the authenticity of his slice-of-life depictions of the colleagues’ collisions. We witness the damage control, crisis management, and risk of burnout that come with this territory. We even get a reminder of how much Chicagoans still miss the late mayor Harold Washington.

What makes one night different from any other (a pointed Hanukkah reference) is the arrival of an irresistible 11-year-old Jewish runaway named Sherman (Jonah Kaufman, one precious prodigy). This lost little lad has gotten conflicting advice from Larry and Betty on how to cope with parents on the verge of divorce.

On a bitter cold night this wunderkind, an adorable reality check, quickly warms up their lives, faking judo moves, playing games, even doing a mean version of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” It’s beyond cute, these rapid-fire depictions of how Sherman turns them into an instant family.

Alas, this collective cheer would matter more if it triumphed over a darker context. The problem with the play is that this hotline never heats up. There’s not enough contrast between the volunteers reconnecting with their “inner child” and the sad stuff that comes with their job. We hardly get a hint of the non-negotiable suicide threats, pleas to solve toxic loneliness, and other cries for help that have made this hotline happen.

Maybe Newell didn’t want to bring us down during his happy holiday trifle. But Sherman’s Hanukkah miracle, however persuasively performed, sort of feels like unearned emotion. The result is not quite hypoglycemic — but a little insulin couldn’t hurt.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Cold Town/Hotline: A Chicago Holiday Story
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Wed-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on December 22, 2019
for tickets, call 773.338.2177 or visit Raven Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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