Two strong shows kick off summer theater season
The Hard Dick, Blue Room Theatre
“Writing is no occupation for a man,” snarls the adamantine private investigator Nick Sledge (as played by Steve Swim) at the beginning of the Blue Room’s production of The Hard Dick. He steps away from his typewriter to tango with a soon-to-be-dead-then-zombified hooker and dives headlong into a pulpy ooze of ninjas, cultist mimes, secret societies, black magic, pieces of prostitutes, an ape and more.
Convoluted, sure, but beautifully so, and it’s author/director (and CN&R film reviewer) Craig Blamer’s writing that keeps The Hard Dick from going limp. Blamer rises to the occasion magnificently, bringing an underlying order to this clusterfuck of a noir tale such that when Sledge repeats the line to H.P. Lovecraft (?!) in the second act it makes sense. Well, as much sense as it can make. Not only does he manage to hold it all together, but he peppers the play with laugh-a-minute bits and pop-culture references that are fun to watch for (one of my favorites being a hilarious nod to Chinatown).
Even with great writing, this “hardboiled burlesque”—as it’s fittingly billed—would crash and burn without a strong cast, and the Blue Room players do an excellent job. Swim delivers a dead-on take of a classic American archetype in the lead role. Murri Lazoroff-Babin and Winston Colgan master dialects that seem to only exist in old Hollywood movies and provide some deep yuks as bumbling officers Kruger and Dunning. Keilana Decker vamps it up as Velvet Dunbar, Sledge’s sexy sidekick and 99 to his Maxwell Smart—Sledge can blast caps, brawl and bed down with the best of ’em but his deductive skills suck. Chico musician Aubrey Debauchery is captivating as songstress/ninja master Miyu Neko, begging the question: Is there anything that chick can’t do really, really well?
Overall, The Hard Dick delivers an exhilarating evening of entertainment that’ll make you want to come again and again. (Hur hur hur.) Requisite dick jokes are among the lesser offenses against more refined sensibilities, the play is also refreshingly politically incorrect, as fearless comedy should be, so you might wanna leave grandma at home. Grandpa, however, will love the dames.
Superior Donuts, Chico Cabaret
Chico Cabaret kicked off its summer schedule last Thursday with a satisfying opening-night performance of Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts’ much lighter follow-up to his 2007 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning dark comedy August: Osage County.
The play takes place inside a dingy, nondescript doughnut shop in a newly gentrified Chicago neighborhood. Arthur Przybyszewski (Richard Cross) is a faded ’60s radical, hiding away from life in the shop his Polish immigrant father opened 50 years earlier. Arthur hires a young, energetic, black kid named Franko (JaQuan Sayres) to work the counter, and soon the precocious youngster’s presence begins to open Arthur up, gradually forcing him to face the fears that have dictated his life.
The saving grace with this otherwise pat story (young upstart bringing color to the gray life of an old fart) was the casting of local pros (Sheri Bagley, Don Eggert and Jeff Dickenson, to name a few), and director Phil Ruttenburg handing over the reins and letting them play and overplay their central-casting roles to the hilt. (The most effective being John Duncan as a foul-mouthed Russian stereo-store owner.)
And Cross is irresistible, embodying the tortured Arthur with understated grace. With his scraggly beard and aging-hippie ponytail, he has the look down, and he carries himself in the role so naturally (though sometimes too quietly) that it felt like we were being let in on his own personal story. When he recounts the final days of his marriage, the resignation in his voice is crushing.
Sayres has some of the most fun lines, though, and while he is overwhelmed by his character’s dialogue early on, he pulls it together soon enough and provides the play with most of its energy.
However sentimental and broadly drawn the play is, the warmth and connection between Cross and Sayres feels real. The actors become characters to care about, and their blossoming friendship and the dormant fires it stokes are compelling to witness. It’s sentimental, but appealingly so.