The Sweeter Option
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Strawdog's 100th production is a fun, sexy noir ride through 1970s Chicago.
A few years back, playwright and NPR personality Peter Sagal described a common equation used by writers in order to create thrilling and narratively satisfying endings. Audiences should carefully be poised to anticipate A or B, he says, then instead be given Z, "which they never saw coming but it works perfectly, better than A or B ever could've."
The ending—and beginning and middle, though they're not shown in that or any other quickly discernible order (consult your program)—of John Henry Roberts's sexy new pulp drama does that and more, darting around the alphabet to stay one step ahead of its viewers, cohesion sometimes be damned. Even for a psychological thriller, some of the many detours beg questions that distract more than intrigue, but it's a fun, damn good-looking ride the whole way through.
Set in 1971 Chicago, Strawdog Theatre Company's milestone 100th production gives a nod to its home city with a highly stylized, flashy crime story on the North Side. Tucker (Sam Guinan-Nyhart), an investigator tracking down a missing rental car on behalf of an insurance company, is seduced by a Gold Coast housewife (Emily Tate) into an embezzlement scheme already in-progress and half-botched. A femme fatale, Irene (Michaela Petro), plays both guide and gatekeeper to the mysterious agent's path to claiming the stolen money, and the two tango down a rabbit role that leads up and down Sheridan Avenue to a pile of bodies, safe-deposit boxes, and roll upon roll of duct tape.
Many of the show's 80 minutes involve Petro and Guinan-Nyhart's being holed up in one place or another, and Marti Lyons's production capitalizes on the two actors' dormant, potentially volatile friction. Stylistically, it's also not hard to envision these two as 1970s stars; both possess a classic look reflected by the production's noir design. Inspired lighting and sound—one scene involving a character fading in and out of sleep is particularly clever for its sheer simplicity and effectiveness—complement Joanna Iwanicka's morphing set. It's a technical feast, and a continuation of Strawdog's tradition of imaginatively telling sweeping stories in a small space.
The material and the mystery itself, though, left me wondering why Roberts didn't choose to go even a bit further. Given the era, it's fairly PG-13 pulp, Ryan Bourque's crunchy-sounding, always-exhilarating fight choreography notwithstanding. Without heavier grit to weigh it down, the clever dialogue and wrought comebacks sometimes push the boundaries of plausibility. Even then, though, Lyons' cast—including several company debuts—makes it easy to jump along for the ride.
Strawdog Theatre Company. By John Henry Roberts. Directed by Marti Lyons. With Sam Guinan-Nyhart, Michaela Petro, Emily Tate, Jamie Vann, Matt Farabee, Rudy Galvan, Sarah Price. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.