Chicago Theatre Review
The Age of Innocence
A Crime in the Neighborhood – City Lit
“Watch Yourself” is a confounding phrase: part censure, part injunction, part warning, part distant, underdone expression of affection, all bound up in a piece of aggressive but sage advice. One’s life can be very adventurous if one can learn to keep an eye open, but if one does not, someone else can make that life very short. These flinty truths settle through the strata of City Lit’s A Crime in the Neighborhood, based on the novel by Suzanne Berne and adapted for the stage by James Glossman. Though it fails to cary quite as much unease or suspense as it would like to, the adaptation is suitably twisty puzzler and is american as suburbia, disillusionment, and bad pantomime (all three of which it has in spades).
It is the summer of 1972 and the world of Marsha Eberhardt (Judy Lea Steele) feels like its in a tumble dryer. Looking back at her twelve-year-old self (Avery Moss), Marsha walks us through the traumas of that boiling summer, the first rumblings of Watergate, the shattering of her home life when her father (Jim Morley) runs off with her aunt Ada (Carrie Hardin), leaving her mother (Jennifer T. Grubb) with no support, no prospects, and a bevy of gossipy neighbors to hold back. Oh, and there’s the rape and murder of one of the neighborhood boys in the wooded lot behind the community mall. Not caring so much about the first, and unable to make sense of the second young Marsha launches herself into an investigation of a third, in the style of her hero Sherlock Holmes, and begins incubate suspicion against her reserved and retiring neighbor Mr. Green (Steve Silver).
Composed in the “chamber theater style” pioneered by the late Robert Breen, Glossman’s adaptation allows for much of Berne’s narration and description to immigrate from the page, and find comfortable housing and employment opportunities in the voices of both old and young Marsha as well as the ensemble as a whole. This less than direct style of storytelling gives us the gift of examining Marsha’s remembrances and evidence from all sorts of angles as well as explore the past, future and the world outside the neighborhood without putting strain upon our attention. This involvement is helped along by the Rachel M. Sypniewski, who provides many of the exact properties and costumes exhaustively described in the source text. The game of hopscotch across time and space can baffle at first but Glossman always takes care to bring us back to square one before starting another round, and letting each of the characters have their say. The pick up between performer and performer suffers from serious lag time (as though each actor were performing on a different continent and we had to wait for the signal to bounce through the atmosphere), but with time and practice this should be remedied and shrink to one cohesive voice of legion.
The majority of this legion belongs to the four fabulous Mayhew girls, Marsha’s mother Lois and aunts Ada, Claire (Mandy Walsh) and Fran (Lisa Stran). In addition to trotting out a number of finely detailed tertiary characters (from gruff teenage boys to suburban wives given to gabbling) they also deliver well crafted, fully invested players in the domestic drama, particularly Hardin’s free spirited, accidental adulteress and Grubb’s melding of shell-shock and giddiness at her duel betrayal and liberation. As both Mr. Green and Detective Smalls, Silver fashions a very real reserve and turns it to make two different ends, the worn-down suspicion of the accuser and the shy, bumbling, at times sinister silence of the accused. For their own part, Steele and Moss make an excellent team, the suspicious young girl and the wiser, weary woman interjecting and fact checking each others stories, as well as silently plead with each other to undo the mistakes of the past or the present, and keen together over the same buried griefs.
A crime in the neighborhood lacks a certain amount of drive; perhaps due to the dryness of the murder plot, which is horrific but remotely so, apart from the intestine twining opening (that, and collective pantomime skills really are lamentable). But for all that it is a well executed juicy adaptation, slathered with Berne’s smaltz and topped by performances both solid and stirring. Perhaps its greatest draw and accomplishment is the shifting moral mobile it provides on what it is to know oneself, ones family and friends, throughout the dark backward and abyss of time. In Marsha’s mouth “Watch yourself” takes on a whole new meaning.
Recommended by Ben Kemper
2/28-4/13 City Lit Theater Company
Friday’s 7:30, Saturday’s 3:00, Sunday’s 6:30.
1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave Chicago
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.