Tuesday, May 07, 2019

International Pop Overthrow: Celebrating Chicago Rock Clubs, 'The Undeniable Sound of Right Now' Strikes a Powerful Chord -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Undeniable Sound of Right Now
a play by Laura Eason
directed by BJ Jones
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 16

Even more so than "Is it good?" the most obvious question anyone might ask about a play is:

"What's it about?"

My inability to almost ever answer that question succinctly serves to explain why I like writing long-winded theater reviews on this blog.

For almost all professional plays, especially really good ones, wind up being about far more than their surface-level, sound byte subject matter.

A truly great, compelling play can be about almost anything, speak and appeal to almost anyone, regardless of demographics, proclivities, etc.

As such, I don't feel that anybody should limit their theatergoing to plays (or musicals) that acutely interest them. The same sort of reasoning applies to movies, TV shows, books, museums, etc.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Since long before I began writing reviews, and far prior to being invited to do so, I've attended plays across a vast spectrum of topics, and feel I am far richer for it. 

This said, although I didn't know too much about it before arriving Monday night at Raven Theatre, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now by Laura Eason more directly correlates to my interests than most plays I've ever seen.

And I found it to be terrific.

Based in 1992, it's set in the fictional Hank's Bar, a venerated but decidedly scruffy music venue in some non-posh section of Chicago.

After the play, I was told that Lounge Ax--a Lincoln Avenue club from 1987-2000--served as a clear point of reference, but my mind conjured other spots as well, from the before-my-time The Quiet Knight, Kinetic Playground and folky Earl of Old Town, to the extant Schuba's, Martyrs, Elbo Room and Empty Bottle.

Now in its 36th year, Metro seems to correspond with Hank's folklore for having hosted early shows by unknown bands that would become famous, though I was surprised to just find on Setlist.fm that Nirvana's first local gig was at Club Dreamerz in Wicker Park, which I hadn't heard of.

Although I'm a huge rock fan who started attending Chicagoland shows around 1983--and have been to my share of small clubs down to 50-people rooms--I was a suburban kid who mainly went to arena shows, then was in college and Los Angeles in the late-'80s and early '90s.

So my personal nostalgia for places like Hank's bar is more appreciative than actual, but the concept of The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is one that really speaks to me, including in Hank (wonderfully played by Jeff Mills) ruing the rise of club DJs in lieu of live bands.

Written a few years ago by Chicagoan Laura Eason, who per promotional literature was once in a band called Tart, the play centers around Hank, who has built a reputation in the rock community for helping break many a new band, and though greying, still loves to do so.

But The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is somewhat about changing times and tastes, and Hank is resistant when his 22-year-old daughter Lena (the wonderful Lindsay Stock) suggests they book a DJ on a slow night.

Nash (Henry Greenberg) happens to be such a DJ, and he and Lena develop an interest in each other that isn't only professional.

Lena's actual mom isn't in the picture, but Bette (the always excellent Dana Black) serves as a beloved mother figure, while Christopher Acevedo is empathetic as Hank's employee Toby, who also has feelings for Lena.

Casey Morris rounds out the cast as Joey, who as the son of Hank's original landlord, is now largely handling things regarding occupancy.

While I definitely would recommend The Undeniable Sound of Right Now to those who love rock music and recall the early '90s Chicago scene--there are references to the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, Material Issue, Jesus Lizard and more--the family and relationship aspects also work well.

I much admire Eason's script--the kind I wish I could write--but I could palpably imagine her tinkering with choosing crisis points, deciding which of the three young men should capture Lena's heart, ironing out the ending, etc.

And while understanding that every modification has reasons for and against, I'm not convinced all the choices worked into the finished piece were the best options.

Dramatic license is certainly understandable, but aspects like Hank operating all those years with no lease, the happenstance of an unused warehouse next door in which Nash can host a rave, a death that feels rashly opportunistic, etc., are things that just kind of made me squint.

There's also fuzziness about Nash, his motives and possible drug use. And repeated mentions of Nirvana and The Clash become a tad overwrought, as though shortcuts to establishing the sanctity of Hank's Bar.

Certainly I know--and somewhat rue, just because it's not my preference--that EDM, DJ-driven dance music has become huge these days, and has been for several years. House music and the legendary Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles are rightfully referenced within the timeframe of The Undeniable Sound of Right Now.

But it still feels somewhat historically askew for a critical juncture in the existence of Hank's Bar to come in 1992, the year before the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Liz Phair all broke big out of Chicago.

Nonetheless, across 90 minutes I was completely engaged, and the adroit direction by BJ Jones--longtime artistic director of Northlight Theatre--helps render the imperfections largely inconsequential to a truly entertaining play.

I hadn't seen Jeff Mills previously--he reminds a bit of The Walking Dead's Jeffrey Dean Morgan--but he feels perfect in the role of Hank.

And while I loved Lindsay Stock in Faceless at Northlight (also under Jones' direction), she's just as fantastic here in playing a cool, yet hot, young woman who's loyal to her dad but also longing to make her own mark.

As I mentioned, Black--who I've seen in shows at Steep and Northlight theaters--is also great, and Acevedo, Greenberg and Morris all do fine jobs.

Especially in thinking that this play likely went through considerable reworkings during its development, I couldn't help wondering how switching around the parts the three young actors play could change the tonality.

But while it's easy to imagine to The Undeniable Sound of Right Now being somewhat different, and possibly a bit sharper, it really is a fine accomplishment--and lots of fun to watch--exactly as it is.

For those about to rock--anywhere, anytime, but especially in Chicago's storied past--I salute you.

And even if it's completely lost on you that Hank plays a riff of Urge Overkill's "Sister Havana"--at least I think that's what it was--you should still greatly enjoy what this play is about. 

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