Chicago Theatre Review
Checking In, Checking Out
The Fundamentals – Steppenwolf
The hospitality industry presents itself as a caring, service-oriented business, staffed by selfless individuals whose only desire is to fulfill the needs and wants of their hotel guests. Of course, this is precisely the impression every hostelry wants to convey to its guests. In the end, it’s all about luring the cliental to their establishment, making each traveler as comfortable and happy as possible and keeping the hotel operating in the black. In this humorous new drama, now enjoying its world premiere, playwright Erika Sheffer rips away the curtain to expose the people behind the scenes of the hospitality business. Audiences will awaken to the fact that their favorite hotel is actually run by flesh-and-blood individuals, just like themselves, with their own needs, wants and aspirations.
The play opens with a spot-on, tongue-in-cheek television commercial/motivational training video (stylishly created by Stephan Mazurek). This polished projection sets the tone for the modus operandi of this elegant auberge before we visit the lower level of this establishment. There, unseen by the guests, five hotel employees meet to coordinate assignments, change into their uniforms and set out to perform their various jobs. Through their interactions we get to know each worker pretty well.
We meet Millie, the young, attractive, kindly head housekeeper. She’s a conscientious hard worker and always willing to help anyone in need. This empathy may lead to her downfall. Millie’s also a Caribbean immigrant, the mother of an elementary school-aged daughter and the wife of Lorenzo, the hotel engineer and all-around handyman. Behind the professional facade we discover that Millie harbors her own dreams and ambitions. We learn that she tabled her personal aspirations when, while still in college, she became pregnant. We find out that amiable Lorenzo is actually a smooth but irresponsible operator, a manipulating petty thief with an addiction to gambling.
We also get to know Millie’s manager, Abe. He’s a decent, older hotel employee who, although a confirmed bachelor, seems like a reliable, feisty father figure. He not only provides for his ailing mother in a nursing home, but he’s welcomed an unfortunate down-on-her-luck friend into his apartment, who’s been taking advantage of his generosity. He’s also been pilfering toiletries and expired minibar treats from the hotel for almost thirty years.
Into this trio of veteran employees comes Stellan, a pretty, twenty-something hopeful actress, who’s been hired as the new front desk agent/clerk. And while the always reliable Millie has proven her competence to Eliza, the plastic, play-by-the-rules, chichi hotel manager, she’s once again been passed over for this job promotion. Eliza would prefer that Millie remains downstairs, where she’s excellent at her job, and put the new, affable, attractive white girl at checkin, to be the hip, welcoming face of the hotel. However, what Eliza doesn’t learn until it’s too late is that Stellan is a manipulative, selfish Millennial who’s only interested in Number One.
Erika Sheffer’s play, while entertaining and somewhat eyeopening, is actually pretty predictable. Almost from the beginning the audience can see where this story is headed and can hazard a guess at its ending. Sheffer’s story sets its plot points up like bowling pins, with each one waiting to fall. Throughout the scenes she illustrates how the most decent individuals harbor a few secrets and lies that, if revealed, would surprise or shock anyone claiming who know them. She also says that people will do just about anything to get ahead. The Bible tells us that money is the root of all evil; Sheffer contends that even the nicest individual would gladly sell out or throw his own brother under the bus for a bigger paycheck and more power.
Director Yasen Peyankov, who expertly guided Steppenwolf’s recent production of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” leads his cast through a play that feels almost like a series of character studies used to illustrate themes of mistrust, betrayal and succeeding at any cost. He’s coaxed terrific performances from his talented cast, led by the always exceptional Alana Arenas, as Millie. If theatergoers wanted a poster girl for the word “nice,” they couldn’t find a more deserving woman. Ms. Arenas becomes the audience’s representative in this slight story and it’s this kind, deserving young lady who earns all our care and empathy.
Audrey Francis is outstanding as Eliza. She’s the epitome of the corporate sellout, that automaton who spouts all the required scripted jargon that she’s been brainwashed to say, and sporting that hard, artificial smile and all the phony concern for her employees that her position demands. Last seen in “Between Riverside and Crazy,” this gifted actress adds another memorable role to her already impressive resume. Caroline Neff, so excellent in “The Flick” and “Airline Highway,” is perfect as a Drew Barrymore-like newbie on the hotel staff. Beneath those blonde curls and radiant smile lurks a shifty, backstabbing babe who’ll trample over her best friend to get what she wants.
Alan Wilder, a longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member, and an unquestionably versatile talent of many plays and films, adds this thoughtful portrayal of Abe to his list of credits. Demonstrating that air of comfort and familiarity to his character that bespeaks decades of doing the same job well for so long, Mr. Wilder makes this veteran employee into the kind guy that everyone knows. Abe is reliable, can handle any crisis and is comfortable sharing his life with anyone he considers his friend and confidant. He never imagines that such a bosom buddy would ever betray or turn against him. And Armando Riesco plays Lorenzo as a man at ease with his choices in life. Deep down, his hotel handyman struggles with balancing gambling addiction, quick get-rich plans and all the demands of being a parent and adult. He knows his strengths but innocently sweeps his weaknesses under the luxurious pile carpeting of the hotel suites. Like everyone in this play, Riesco’s Lorenzo isn’t exactly the man he appears to be.
Collette Pollard’s realistic scenic design is a subterranean room filled with the most minute details. From a “Wall of Fame,” sporting the names of star workers, to a bulletin board papered with notes and directives, this room is as natural as it is artistic. A working elevator, doors leading to exposed staircases and employee lockers, desks, tables and shelves stuffed with assorted office supplies and minutiae—all create a lifelike representation of this basement all-purpose room. Natasha Vuchurovich Dukich’s hotel uniforms and blue collar work clothes contrast nicely with Eliza’s stylish, upscale fashions. And Tanera Marshall’s dialect work with this cast is subtle yet authentic.
The next time he checks into a hotel, it’s guaranteed that the audience member who’s experienced this production will flash back to the unseen heroes who keep things running so smoothly. They’re all real people, just like himself, with their own needs and wants. He may also become a bit more sympathetic in his demands as he recalls that these employees both check in and out of their minimum wage jobs quickly, at the whim of their supervisors. Additionally, Erika Sheffer’s somewhat predictable comic drama cynically reminds us that people will do almost anything to get ahead. In this respect, Steppenwolf’s two-hour production is a modern morality play that entertainingly speaks to the climate of today’s business world. It’s simply all about following the fundamentals.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 10-December 23 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in its Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the theatre box office, by calling Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.