There are several cringe-inducing scenes in "Big Lake Big City," a noirish, black comedy/murder mystery by Arlington Heights playwright Keith Huff ("Mad Men," "House of Cards"). But there are no dull moments in director David Schwimmer's kinetic, briskly paced world premiere at Lookingglass Theatre.
The reason has to do with Huff's multiple, overlapping plot lines.
"Big Lake Big City"★ ★ ★
Location: Lookingglass Theater, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, (312) 337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Aug. 11. Also 7:30 p.m. July 16 and 30 and 3 p.m. July 11, 25 and Aug. 8
Running time: About two hours, 10 minutes with intermission
Parking: Pay garages nearby
Rating: For adults; includes sexual situations, strong language
The central strand involves a pair of hard-boiled (are there any other kind?) Chicago detectives investigating the double homicide of a couple found shot to death behind a diner. Another strand -- informed by recent scandals involving wrongful convictions, police-sanctioned torture and overcrowding at the Cook County morgue -- has to do with an ex-con who stalks the guy who ratted him out. That guy, it turns out, is walking around with a screwdriver lodged in his brain.
Add to the mix strained marriages and cheating spouses, and you've got a sharply written, funny yet somewhat inconsistent show better sited to AMC than a Chicago stage.
An exceptional writer, Huff's skill was apparent in 2007 when "A Steady Rain," his unflinching examination of cops whose lives spiral out of control, premiered at Chicago Dramatists. A runaway hit, "A Steady Rain" opened on Broadway in 2008 and, since then, has had about a dozen international productions, with more scheduled for this year. Among Huff's talents is a keen ear for police patois (his father-in-law was a Chicago police commander). And his deliciously caustic dialogue is one of the best things about this play, which pairs a kind of madcap sensibility with a dark, even perverse, humor.
How perverse? A medical examiner, during down times at the morgue, practices his golf swing using a severed head as the ball.
The action unfolds at various Chicago locales, which set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer effectively pares to their essentials: A single red car stands in for the Navy Pier Ferris wheel. And a cluttered desk locates us in the office of police detectives Bastion Podaris (a complex, conflicted Philip R. Smith) and Vince Getz (the ideally cast Danny Goldring, a master of dry humor).
As the play opens, they're investigating the aforementioned double homicide. Their main suspect is Maria Vasquez (a sweet, sassy, self-confident Wendy Mateo), a Disney-obsessed travel agent under the care of Dr. Susan Howren (a razor-sharp Beth Lacke), a wealthy TV psychiatrist known as Dr. Grief. Her prize possession is an early 20th-century sculpture (a literal talking head), by the Italian artist Modigliani, that will figure in the caper component of this crime drama.
Susan is married to Peter (Kareem Bandealy), a former surgeon turned forensic pathologist who works on his long game when he's not performing autopsies. Bitter over his ruined career and a floundering marriage, Peter seeks solace in the arms of the mercurial Ally (Elk Grove Village native Katherine Cunningham, the picture of earnest insecurity), a former escort turned dental hygienist married to Podaris, whom she met when he arrested her. It turns out, Ally's the ex-girlfriend of the recently exonerated Elston Moss (Anthony Fleming III), a violent criminal Podaris helped convict. Moss has returned to the city to hook up with Ally and exact vengeance on the hapless Stewart Perez (a funny, endearing Eddie Martinez), a petty thief whose testimony sent Moss to prison. Stewart works for his brother, the law-abiding Trent (a quietly decent J. Salome Martinez), who's driven by Stewart's endless screw-ups to plant a screwdriver in his skull -- which the resourceful Stewart hides under a Shriner's fez. Rounding out the cast is Thomas J. Cox, who plays a much-abused insurance investigator and a half-baked morgue attendant.
Although the narrative stumbles at times, the acting is sure-footed, with Smith, J. Salome Martinez, Eddie Martinez and Mateo delivering some genuinely touching, very real moments in the midst of the mayhem. Unfortunately, Huff doesn't do the actors (or the audience) any favors when, in the second act, he has them step outside the action to comment on it. That decision yanked me right out of "Big Lake Big City's" wacky world, which I was willing to embrace as long as the characters did.