Monday, October 08, 2018

Rooms for Improvement: Interesting Idea Not Enough to Make 'Zürich' an Overnight Success -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Amelia Roper
directed by Brad DeFabo Akin
Steep Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 10 

I have seen--or simply know of--a number of movies that are divided into segments, with only loose thematic or narrative connections: Crash, Traffic, Babel, Holy Motors, Certain Women, Wild Tales, Paisan and more.

But while I imagine there are several similarly-structured plays, only Neil Simon's Plaza Suite and California Suite--both turned into movies--come to mind, and I haven't seen either on stage.

So unless I've forgotten something--which is certainly possible--Amelia Roper's Zürich is the first theatrical work I've seen that was divided up in this way.

And even if the conceit isn't entirely original, it is certainly innovative and rare enough that I was hoping the end result would be far more intoxicating.

Not that there isn't significant appeal besides the episodic nature. 

Photo by Gregg Gilman
I have before never attended a play in which a glass partition separates the audience from the actors, but director Brad DeFabo Abin and set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec employ one within Steep's intimate space, so as to give a sense of viewing a hotel room--in Zürich, Switzerland--through an exterior window. As if one were a bird, window cleaner, voyeur from a nearby building or perhaps God.

And with the requisite acoustics nicely assured by sound designer Thomas Dixon, the scenic conceit works well. 

As Zürich opens, we see a man standing on his bed singing the U.S. National Anthem, wearing only an unbuttoned shirt. 

This too is something I've never seen before, not even in my bedroom mirror.

I won't spell out what happens in each of the five scenes that take place in five different rooms of the same hotel--the same onstage set piece is used for all--nor who plays which character, except to say that Elizabeth Wigley is appealing as a hotel maid who appears in multiple vignettes.

Photo by Gregg Gilman
Not thinking that it ruins much, I will share that two guests (in separate scenes) are American businessmen, in Zurich for a banking conference. Three different children factor in, and a couple of the episodes involve threats of violence.

All of the acting is stellar, by Sasha Smith, Jeff Kurysz--nicely varied here from two other stellar roles I've recently seen--Debo Balogun, Maya Lou Hlava, Cole Keriazakos, Cindy Marker, Valerie Gorman, Brandon Rivera and Julia Dale & Paula Hlava, who share a role at alternating performances.

Though I feel the harsh "sturm und drang" music separating the scenes--as the audience repeatedly sees itself reflected in the glass--is a bit over the top, Akin does a nice job presenting the material Roper provides.

But while I give the playwright props for attempting something unique, I didn't find the individual scenes and characters all that beguiling.

Photo by Lee Miller
Though the last scene wasn't one I saw coming, Zürich also doesn't tie the disparate vignettes together in a way that I found satisfying.

I can readily imagine a structurally similar play unwinding with some kind of connective twist.

But while Zürich--which ran Off Broadway last year--does offer some interesting observations as it depicts those simultaneously holed up in a European business-class hotel, overall I didn't feel sufficiently more enlightened at check-out time.

While I didn't love Zürich, the production did nothing to lessen my regard for the work consistently presented at Steep Theatre Co. I hope to return and I applaud the expansion of their storefront space to include a newly-opened lounge next door, dubbed the Boxcar.

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