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Theater: Chalk
Online Special
by Scott C. Morgan

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Playwright: Brad Lawrence. At: The Right Brain Project at Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph. Phone: 312-742-8497; $10-$15. Runs through: Nov. 25

Note to playwright Brad Lawrence: If you want to attract your desired audience of fans of film noir detective movies of the early 20th century and lovers of all things Chicago to your world-premiere play, then get another title. Once people hear the generic title Chalk, they might skip The Right Brain Project's fun and gripping gumshoe detective homage if they think it's somehow related to schoolmarms.

In Lawrence's play, chalk refers specifically to the outlines around blood-soaked bodies. The title fits once you see it, but it's a weak intro to Chalk where practically everything else is a winner.

Set in early 1920s Chicago, Chalk follows Eddie ( Joseph Stearns ) , a disgraced former police detective now working as a private dick. Eddie is called into action when Jackyln ( Elizabeth Bagby ) , the chanteuse widow of assassinated Chicago Mayor Leonard King, hires him to solve this unsolved cold case.

In typical film noir fashion, the trail leads to violent fights, double-crosses and a bloody ending. Some might call Lawrence's work slavishly derivative, but for Chicago and film noir fans, it's a visually compelling and clever work that allows you to get swept along with all the intrigue.

Lawrence has clearly done his homework since all the film noir characters and hallmarks are there: the ever-loyal secretary ( an industrious Cyd Blakewell as Suzy ) , the unreliable informant ( Eddie Jordan III as the blind Tyrone ) , the violent gangster ( Colby Sellers as the Irish Donovan ) , his in-cahoots moll ( Erin Orr as the screechy Mitzie ) and the cops of both upstanding and crooked variety ( the very convincing Christopher M. Walsh, Dan Granata and Jim Farrell ) . Lawrence also gives his cast great smart-aleck dialogue that crackles with sarcasm and period Prohibition references. Sarah Elizabeth's color-faded 1920 costumes makes them all look picture perfect.

Holding it all together is a masterful performance by as Eddie, the world-weary detective wading through constant deception and self-disappointment from his alcohol-fueled past mistakes.

Director Nathan Robbel makes skilled use of the limited Studio Theater space by working with lighting designer James Vertovec to incorporate a number of great back-lit silhouettes to dress up the scenes and situations. Ranging from park sculptures and fountains to the taunting figures of Eddies' nightmares, these silhouettes are ingeniously worked into the fabric of Chalk and evoke that characteristic film noir look.

Where Lawrence smudges up Chalk is the ending, which never fully spells out the conclusion and the twisted murder revelation. But that withheld information forces you put in the final puzzle piece and make that shocking Greek tragic conclusion.

So don't judge a play by its title in this case. Chalk is an entertaining and action-packed stage homage to the imaginary black-and-white underworld of film noir Chicago.

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