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Beautiful City
THEATER REVIEW
by Jonathan Abarbanel
2010-03-17

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Playwright: George F. Walker. At: Theatre Mir at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets: 312-742-8497; www.dcatheater.org; $25. Runs through: April 3

George F. Walker is a prolific Canadian playwright whose works have been extensively produced stateside. He's written gothic horror, but most of his plays are burlesques which explode contemporary issues with cartoon-like exaggerations. Beautiful City is a perfect example.

It opens as self-absorbed real estate developer Tony Raft—a vicious thug in a silk suit—strenuously coerces architect Paul Gallagher to work for him again. Soon we meet Tony's mother-from-hell and learn the Rafts oversee local organized crime with permission from never-seen political higher-ups. They go ballistic when small-time thief Rolly Moore and his juvenile delinquent son horn in on their porno magazine trade. The Rafts mistakenly think architect Gallagher is in cahoots with the Moores. Instead, Gallagher allies with Gina Mae Sabatini, a healing witch ( yeah, a witch ) who is Moore's sister-in-law. In the end—after several double-cross reversals—the Rafts overstep themselves, and the Unseen Political Leaders force them to finance expensive public works dictated by Sabatini, representing the poor folks of the unnamed Beautiful City. Sabatini's daughter and Gallagher's brother also are involved so that each side of the play's square is represented by a close family unit.

OK—you got it? So what's the point? Well, Walker appears to be burlesquing the balance of forces that control a city. You have Unseen Political Bosses ( represented by a deus ex machina police detective ) , syndicate crime ( mother and son ) , unorganized crime ( father and son ) , the professional/business class ( the architect and his brother ) and "the people" ( witch mom/daughter ) in a constant push-and-shove through which "progress" is made. This would be brilliant if Walker was Aristophanes and we were in ancient Athens. To have criminal wealth pay for public works is a classic Greek Old Comedy "happy idea" ( as they were called ) . Too bad this is contemporary Chicago where Beautiful City is, perhaps, too true to be good. Ultimately, the characters are so two-dimensional that you don't care about any of them.

Theatre Mir gives this trifle—it's pretty much a trifle—a brisk and energetic production under multifaceted director Rob Chambers. Young veteran Yosh Hayashi plays wheedling grifters, con men and outright thugs better than anyone else in town and does full justice to Tony Raft, his scary intensity belying his modest physical size. Jeremy Kahn is a stitch as the clueless juvenile, transforming wonderfully into a crow and a squirrel when entranced by his witch aunt. These are only two among a well-matched ensemble of eccentric character performances.

Beautiful City is amusing but not very thoughtful, perfectly suited for audiences who go to theater to be entertained and not to think. Chicago audiences who want more may find it in Theatre Mir's energetic and focused production rather than in the play itself.


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