Playwright: Amelia Roper
At: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave. Tickets: $10-$38; 773-649-3168; SteepTheatre.com . Runs through: Nov. 10
A monochrome luxury Swiss hotel room encased in glass is the only set you'll get throughout Amelia Roper's Zurich.
The play, in its Midwest premiere at Steep Theatre, is told in five scenes, none starring more than three people. Plot points and occasionally characters intertwine with previous, if not necessarily chronological moments within a similar sliver of time. Each scene unfolds a relationship between two usually unnamed people: man and woman, two siblings, mother and daughter. All five are tense, tightly told affairs, and a few involve weaponry.
While they alternate in dramatic potential, the first and third scenes stand out. Sasha Smith and Jeff Kurysz open the play as a couple negotiating the aftermath of a hookup, including a heart-stopping moment where Kurysz literally shoves past Smith's stated boundary. The third, where Maya Lou Hlava and Cole Keriazakos are siblings who make an unexpected discovery in their parents' luggage, equals the opening in intensity. Keriazakos in particular is a spot-on annoying little brother to the teenage Hlava, and their dynamic grows more complex yet heartfelt as the scene progresses.
Four of these five scenes have the same emotional bones. They feel real, breathing life into issues such as race and male entitlement in vivid, non-didactic example. The fifth...well, the fifth could stand on its own as a short, gut-busting, tear-jerking absurdist satire about what causes people to do drastic things. Unfortunately, it's the scene that ends Zurich, and it does an abysmal job of tying the previous four scenes together. We're left with only place and fate as a uniting factor, and the characters' fate remains somewhat unclear. Roper's slightly skewed timeline doesn't help, leading to maddening after-show conversations about what is supposed to occur when. And a very poor choice of scene transition, whose implication only becomes clear after the lights go out for the final time, had audiences cringing and covering their eyes each of the four times it was deployed. This is the only off-note in otherwise sound staging, but it's a big one: audiences should not be in danger of having a seizure each time the scenario shifts.
Given how unsatisfying Zurich's conclusion can feel, it feels awkward to recommend four-fifths of a play. But Roper's topical dialogue weaves neatly between humor and tension, and humanity abounds in the space between the characters. The fault is hers for an imperfect concept, but the cast carries out the best parts of Roper's vision with finesse—all within the confines of an innovative, effective set.