Chicago playwright Michael Rychlewski has set his world premiere play “Chops” in a dingy Chicago bar in the Rush Street area. It is 1984, and the place is still outfitted with a jukebox that plays all the great jazz that could be heard live in nearby clubs back in the 1950s and ’60s.
New York playwright Stephen Adly Guigis has set his 2003 play, “Our Lady of 121st Street,” in Harlem, some years before that fabled neighborhood’s recent gentrification. A funeral parlor interior is front and center, with other scenes playing out in a church confessional and a luncheonette.
Both plays bear a distinctive urban vibe, and both spin stories filled with a cross-section of characters notable for their distinctively streety locutions and often desperate approaches to survival. Both also are laced with streaks of pitch black comedy. Here is a closer look at the two shows, now receiving vividly acted productions:
There is a touch of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” in “Chops,” a play in which pipe dreams are the staff of life for at least two of its four characters, all of whom share a passion for the golden days of jazz.
Vince (a wonderfully time-worn Larry Neumann Jr.), is the realist among them. After years of scrimping, this veteran of the Rush Street days owns his own place, and works nonstop to keep it viable. And he has strict rules: No mob-run deals or drug trafficking. He is hellbent on keeping things clean, and he’s got a gun behind the bar, just in case.
When: Through Aug. 14
Where: Dashnight Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Enter old friend Walt (Randy Steinmeyer, perfection as a middle-aged man who believes he has gotten lucky), whose checkered history includes some recent jail time. On his arm is Kaki (the impossibly leggy, enigmatic Clare Cooney), a knockout twentysomething with a showgirl figure and an uncannily encyclopedic knowledge of jazz. It seems the two met earlier that evening at a nearby club. Vince thinks she’s a prostitute, but Walt is just enjoying the night, until the arrival of Philly (Danny Sullivan), a stylish, silver-haired guy who both men know since the old days. Philly is an urbane charmer, but his cool comes with a whiff of quiet desperation, too.
The competition among the three men is played out in a deftly rendered storytelling contest that says a great deal about each. But the main competitors here are Walt and Philly, who spent time in Mexico many years earlier and fell for the same woman there. Now, Philly, who is “in trouble,” tries to lure Walt into a deal. There is much more at stake than is immediately apparent, but it cannot be divulged here.
Rychlewski is a stylish writer, and even if “Chops” can feel a bit too contrived at times, director Richard Shavzin’s stellar cast is superb.
‘OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET’
Chicago has become quite the showcase for Stephen Adly Guirgis this year. Eclipse Theatre has dedicated its entire season to him, with “Our Lady of 121st Street” the second of three plays to be produced (following a brilliant take on “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” with the Midwest premiere of “The Little Flower of East Orange” slated to open in November). And Steppenwolf’s production of his 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Between Riverside and Crazy” runs through Aug. 21.
‘OUR LADY OF 121st STREET’
When: Through Aug. 21
Where: Eclipse Theatre at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
“Our Lady,” which features a dozen feverish, troubled, wildly diverse characters, is classic Guirgis as it captures people in a state of high anxiety and unrest. Gurigis can overdo the hyper-emotionalism, but under the impressive direction of Sarah Moeller, the Eclipse actors put indelible imprints on their roles.
What brings them all together at this particular moment is the death of Sister Rose, a community activist and nun who came from an abusive family, is known to have had an alcohol problem, and was much beloved, in part, because she was not so different from those she worked with. But as it happens, Sister Rose’s body has been stolen from the viewing room of the Ortiz Funeral Home. And though many have gathered for her service, it cannot go ahead until her body is recovered.
Meanwhile, we get to know the mourners. There is Vic (Kevin Scott), undone by the loss of the woman who was his teacher, and Balthazar (Todd Garcia), the police detective of questionable morals. And there is Rooftop (Bernard Gilbert), now a successful disc jockey in Los Angeles, whose attempted confession to Father Lux (Gary Simmers), a Korean War veteran and amputee, is the source of the play’s showstopping scene. Rooftop also wants to reconcile with Inez (the fierce and fiery Celeste M. Cooper), the ex-wife he betrayed years earlier, while that “other woman,” Norca (the sizzling Paloma Nozicka), is still on the scene.
Also circling the empty casket are: Flip (Gregory Geffrard), a gay black man who has brought his flamboyant actor lover, Gail (Matt Thinnes), to the funeral, but wants to keep him quiet; Sister Rose’s asthmatic, borderline psychotic niece, Marcia (Kristen Johnson in furious meltdown mode), and eccentric Sonia (Ashley Hicks). Most poignant of all is Edwin (Anthony Apodaca), the wildly devoted caretaker to his brain-damaged brother, Pinky (Rudy Galvan).
Kevin Hagan’s clever triptych of a set and Zachery Alexander’s period-perfect costumes, tell a story of their own in this play about lost souls who can inflict pain even as they seek to make things right.