Chicago Theatre Review
Embodying All That’s Chicago
Chops – Dashnight Productions
Vince’s neighborhood bar, located somewhere on the northwest side of Chicago, is filled with ghosts, memories and a fond nostalgia for the Windy City’s Golden Era of Jazz. It’s a late Sunday night in 1984, when Walt, a regular at Vince’s and a fellow jazz aficionado, enters in time for last call. But he isn’t alone. On his arm is a spunky, flirtatious young woman named Kaki, whom Walt met earlier that evening. Besides her obvious beauty and sexual allure, Kaki attracted Walt’s attention with her encyclopedic knowledge of jazz: the music, the instrumentalists and the singers. She continually dazzles her escort, while managing to charm suspicious, crusty barkeep, Vince, as well.
Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, a former regular named Philly barges in through the backdoor, startling everyone. Phil hasn’t been seen in the neighborhood in a long time and he still owes Vince a sizable sum of money that he borrowed before he left Chicago. Philly’s return sparks a considerable amount of tension between everyone. The booze flows freely, as do the old jazz hits from the jukebox; stories are told, dances are shared and bets are placed. During this long night’s journey into early morning, told in real time, the reunion turns frighteningly serious. By the end of the night, stories and lies are stripped bare and truths are revealed that will forever change the lives of these four nighthawks.
Directed and fostered by Jeff Award winner Richard Shavzin, this stunningly researched and passionately written drama is by area poet, playwright and teacher, Michael Rychlewski. Guided by Shavzin and produced with respect and reverence, this world premiere features three of Chicago’s finest veteran actors and one comparative newcomer. As the anchor that grounds this play, Randy Steinmeyer is simply sensational as Walt. This character is all Chicago and played by an actor who really knows and understands his city and its people. Steinmeyer effortlessly shows he’s got the chops and demonstrating a true big shoulders attitude. With honesty, Steinmeyer looks, sounds and embodies everything that is the Windy City.
Larry Neumann, Jr., is Vince, playing that kind of seasoned bartender most everyone in the audience will recognize. He’s a shopkeeper who’s been plying his trade for generations. He knows his job and understands his clientele. He also reserves a modicum of suspicion that’s been tempered by years of hurt and betrayal. Neumann creates a three-dimensional character who treats everyone equally and fairly until he’s crossed. Vince refuses to take crap from anyone. He’s got a a slew of good stories to share and and he can mix a proper drink in the wink of an eye. He’s simply the salt of the earth and a good guy.
From the start, Philly, on the other hand, as played by Chicago character actor Daniel Patrick Sullivan, doesn’t convince us that he’s a good guy or that he’s all that he claims to be. There’s something mysterious, or at best, shady about this smarmy character. Sullivan plays Philly so well, employing his skill to enlist our trust. But, because it’s inherent in a drama that someone will usually become the antagonist, and Philly’s the last to arrive on the scene, the audience’s suspicions are aroused from the beginning. Vince’s dislike of the man and his constant warnings to Walt to stay out of Philly’s schemes pricks up our ears to his wheeling and dealing. Sullivan commands this role expertly, using his well-groomed, sophisticated charm and fast talk. Like Walt, we’re almost taken in by his story, but no one will be able to predict what happens next.
Clare Cooney must enjoy working with and learning from these three seasoned, talented actors. As Kaki, the lovely, sassy seductress, Ms. Cooney does a fine job holding her own; but, in comparison, it’s obvious she hasn’t the same finesse of her coworkers that comes from years of theatrical experience. The actress might also consider studying with a good vocal coach to help work on her lower register. Although she plays Kaki as a beautiful, fun-loving, devil-may-care broad, with a sound knowledge of jazz, Ms. Cooney’s voice is mostly high-pitched and one-note. On the other hand, the actress is obviously a fine, trained dancer and demonstrates that she can cut a rug with the best of them.
Grant Sabin’s beautiful barroom setting looks very authentic. It’s as if this dive had been lifted from any one of Chicago’s neighborhoods. The seasoned, dark wood paneling, the tiny round tables and chairs, the array of bottles, posters and, of course, the spectacular jukebox playing in the corner all make this place feel real. Brenda Winstead’s costumes look just right for the period and they add much to each character. Kaki’s stunning red ruffled dress, in particular, simply dazzles.
Michael Rychlewski’s play is quite captivating. Richard Shavzin directs this drama, filled with recognizable Chicago flavor and a tension that continuously builds, creating an almost sinister atmosphere. Four desperate characters mix with the ghosts from the past, as well as stories and anecdotes from years of living on the edge, all mixed within 90 minutes of booze and banter. Together they create an entertaining drama that’s truly Chicago.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 7-August 14 by Dashnight Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.