Big Lake Big City at Lookingglass Theatre Company: Theater review

Keith Huff's new neo-noir spoof is a big mess.
 (Photograph: Liz Lauren)
Photograph: Liz LaurenPhilip R. Smith and Katherine Cunningham in Big Lake Big City at Lookingglass Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Liz Lauren)
Photograph: Liz LaurenWendy Mateo, Eddie Martinez and Thomas J. Cox in Big Lake Big City at Lookingglass Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Liz Lauren)
Photograph: Liz LaurenPhilip R. Smith, Beth Lacke and Eddie Martinez in Big Lake Big City at Lookingglass Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Liz Lauren)
Photograph: Liz LaurenPhilip R. Smith and Beth Lacke in Big Lake Big City at Lookingglass Theatre Company
By Kris Vire |

With some exceptions (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum comes to mind), it's rarely a good sign when a comedy feels the need to announce in its introduction that "this is a comedy." Yet one can understand the impulses that might have led playwright Keith Huff and director David Schwimmer to include that pronouncement at the top of Big Lake Big City, their new contemporary noir spoof at Lookingglass.

Absent that disclaimer—delivered in Italian-accented voiceover by a Modigliani sculpture of a head that later plays into the play's heavily convoluted plot—the opening scene of Chicago cops making light of the city's real and all too recent police torture scandal and seeming to mock the state's moratorium on executions and efforts to exonerate the wrongfully convicted might seem even more tone-deaf than it does.

At that early point, Huff's new script has yet to mark its territory, which is somewhere between Altmanesque multicharacter interplay and Police Squad! meta-goofiness. The various characters improbably pinging off one another again and again include Philip R. Smith as a neo-hardboiled violent crimes detective, Beth Lacke as an upscale psychologist and wrongful-convictions crusader and Eddie Martinez as a small-time con who spends most of the play with a screwdriver lodged deep in his skull (he hides it with a fez).

What binds these three and the show's many other characters, gamely portrayed by a cast of ten actors, are a couple of double homicides, a handful of scams and a whole lot of tortured banter. What's not in the mix are a clear set of rules or stakes. While Schwimmer's staging competently, even stylishly, establishes the many Chicago settings, Huff doesn't seem to see the disconnect between his desire to invoke all of these real-life crises and genuine street addresses (including the nearby Park Hyatt, which very well could have paid a product placement fee) and the irreverent fantasyland he's mapping onto them.

One can imagine a scrappier company like the Factory Theater pulling off this tricky balance. There, at least, the whole team might be more likely on the same page. At Lookingglass's scale, though, Big Lake Big City is a big mess.

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