Sunday, March 24, 2019

"But You Must Pay the Rent!": At Northlight, Compelling 'Landladies' Hits Us Where We Live -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by Sharyn Rothstein
directed by Jess McLeod
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru April 20

There is actually only one landlady in Sharon Rothstein's fine new play, Landladies, which was inspired by but not directly based on the Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted.

But the landlady--a woman named Marti, terrifically played by Shanesia Davis in Northlight's world premiere production--seems symbolic of all kinds of "landladies" in our lives, well beyond those who rent apartments.

While, like everyone, she has some issues, Marti appears to be a decent person. But without giving much away, she is also unavoidably "the bad guy" at times when it comes to her new tenant, Christine (an also excellent Leah Karpel).

Or, at least, the authority figure. i.e. The school dean who must discipline us for being late. The auto mechanic who must inform us that our car needs $2,000 worth of work. The supervisor who must fire us, perhaps for good cause or reasons beyond his/her control.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Someone who might well be a kind, dedicated, empathetic individual who we might truly love if we knew them in another circumstance.

And while Rothstein adroitly slips in a couple aspects that make us wonder if Marti might not be all she seems, we understand that as the owner of an apartment building--even one geared to lower income tenants--there is only so much unpaid rent and personal transgressions she should be expected to tolerate.

But what serves to make Landladies quite compelling is that Christine is largely empathetic as well.

She is a single mother who has shown enough dedication to doing the right thing that she has worked at a crappy taco stand for four years, enduring all sorts of nastiness due to her known responsibilities.

We don't know if she has living parents or any relationship with them, and her need for sometimes unplanned childcare--the taco joint tends to switch her shifts--strains things with an unseen sister.

Though, at least as played by Karpel, she is an attractive and sharp young woman, her self-esteem has suffered to the point of maintaining ties with an ex-boyfriend--called Poet and played by the always stellar Julian Parker--who, I'll just say, has not treated her right (despite having endearing qualities that make it hard for her--or us--to entirely hate him).

From the brief awareness I gleaned about Landladies' subject matter beforehand, I arrived expecting the two women might have more of a close friendship, but with the casting of Davis--who I recalled as being wonderful in Porchlight's 2017 staging of Billy Elliot--and Karpel, it feels like more of a maternal relationship.

This is not a negative, but makes what transpires between them a bit less thorny than it might have been, and I wonder how closely Rothstein specified the characters' ages in her script.

Likewise, that Marti here is an African-American--as is Poet--and Christine is white isn't of great dramatic consequence, but I'm curious if it was written that way, or just cast as such in Northlight's production directed by Jess McLeod.

This is a play I can perceive being done by many regional theaters, and it could be interesting for the characters to be played by actors of different demographics, which would affect some of the dynamics.

I was engrossed throughout the 90-minute one act, and would recommend Landladies for anyone looking for an entertaining and thoughtful evening of theater.

In part due to some intangibles about its tonality, I can't quite call it awesome, and--perhaps intentionally--I didn't get complete clarity about Marti.

There is a situation regarding her encouraging Christine to take classes for--as Poet posits--possibly duplicitous reasons, and I was also a bit confused about entreaties to have Christine do some work for her...and how they play out.

Arnel Sancianco's set design of Christine's dingy apartment, complete with a hole in the floor is impressive; I particularly liked the visual pun of Andrew Wyeth's painting titled "Christina's World" being hung on the wall.

But some scenes take place in a much nicer dwelling in a building Marti is trying to buy, and others in Marti's own home, and though kudos are well-merited for the physical shifting of the set pieces, I found the differentiation between the appearances of the homes less than idyllic.

Landladies is well-worth your time given the sharp writing and fine performances in a new piece commissioned by Northlight.

I have to imagine Rothstein tried a variety of options in shaping the play, but it feels like it might benefit from an additional character, and future stagings could conceivably continue to mold it.

Still, if nothing else, Landladies should make you think about people you may see unfavorably given a certain situation--a cop giving you a speeding ticket; a teacher giving you or your kid a subpar grade--who really may be quite good at heart.

And also to consider the times when you might be the person being seen unfavorably.

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