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Bordello at Chicago Dramatists | Theater review

Aline Lathrop’s new drama about the denizens of a Nevada brothel has potential, but it’s hampered by the playwright’s shallow characterizations.

Photo: Jeff Pines
The cast of Bordello at Chicago Dramatists

Set in a fictional brothel on the outskirts of Vegas, Bordello exploits the novelty of its subject matter at the expense of specificity. Juxtaposing the prostitutes’ constructed-for-clientele personas with the real women behind them, Lathrop’s new play paints her motley but schematic crew in broad strokes.

Though each character’s inherently pitiable, none is fleshed out enough to evoke sympathy. Self-esteem issues and emotional scars are fleetingly referenced, overshadowed by surface exposition of borderline-clichéd backgrounds: Of course the porn star just wants to save her 30-plus siblings in Utah, and the Iraq War veteran is bitter because, you know, Iraq. The audience is kept at arm’s length by an emotionally disconnected preachiness that almost dares us to either cringe or question its authenticity, and demands respect without earning it. The chasm is widened by overwrought attempts at grittiness that ring false; it’s hard to believe an actual pro would use the phrase “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.”

As Kitten, an 18-year-old who’s pounded the pavement for years, Joanne Dubach is the surest glimpse of the piece’s potential. Her sincere naïveté is both tragic and charming, although the opportunity for her to provide true comic relief is tempered by the absence of tension. Marguerite Hammersley’s motherly, sly Honey also intrigues. But lacking complex exploration, these women are ultimately as disposable as their customers think of them—surely the opposite of Lathrop’s aim.

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