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Lookingglass ‘Big Lake Big City’ means murder, lethal comedy on dark streets of Chicago

Submitted by on Jul 3, 2013 – 3:38 pm

Review: “Big Lake Big City” by Keith Huff. World premiere at Lookingglass Theatre through Aug. 25 ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Enter a hurled chair, pursued by a raging detective. Thus begins Chicago playwright Keith Huff’s rambunctious, violently funny police drama “Big Lake Big City,” a slice of Chicago’s underbelly examined from the viewpoint of a rough-cut cop who probably never met a suspect he didn’t punch or a woman he understood.

“Big Lake Big City,” in its world-premiere run at Lookingglass Theatre, is slyly skewed, uproarious fun, a crime story that’s relentlessly intense – at least for the assorted desperate, dumb, beautiful and bizarre characters on stage. For the rest of us, this spider’s web of interlaced lives and cross-hatched deeds adds up to an open and shut case of sober insanity.

Detective Bass Podaris is investigating a murder when a person of interest turns up with a screwdriver thrust into his skull. The guy’s still alive; in fact, he’s fine. He just has this screwdriver handle protruding from his head – which he cleverly conceals with a Shriner’s fez. While Podaris is trying to get to the bottom of it, his new wife, very young and very curvy – whom he scooped up in a prostitution bust – is dallying with the husband of a noted psychologist, and a seriously bad dude is lurking in the shadows with a calculating eye on them all.

Cut to the psychologist’s home, which is conspicuously adorned by a Modigliani sculpture, an elongated head that’s been appraised at $53 million. Actually, it’s a talking head; anyway, it talks to the audience. It’s probably smarter than the psychologist’s husband, a doctor who has lost his license and now tags corpses in a morgue. If the psychologist and the detective are constants in this affair – she being beautiful and he being irascible – the sculpture and husband are moving parts, like the detective’s cute little missus. And the parts start to move pretty fast.

In no small way, the charm of “Big Lake Big City” lies in the seamless stitching of its sizable ensemble. The characters are vividly drawn, the comedy is brash, outrageous and sharp. And director David Schwimmer plays characters and situations off each other with an unfailing mix of irony and tension. It isn’t slapstick. These are real people in the throes of life-altering crises – even if it’s all tossed up with hilarious wit.

You have to love and feel for Philip R. Smith’s middle-aged, hard-bitten Detective Podaris, a man in whom the milk of human kindness has long since soured. Podaris is driven, explosive, perpetually angry. When the water cooler goes empty, he assaults it and wrestles the big canister to the floor. Podaris is supposed to be getting anger management therapy, but who has time with all those low-lifes out there on the street? As Podaris’ partner and straight man, Danny Goldring is an appealing “good” cop who studies yoga and understands that people have feelings.

As events unfold, the willowy psychologist (Beth Lacke in a poised and elegant performance) becomes Podaris’ dance partner,  the two circling each other in a frenetic choreography of suspicion and mutual need. Intersecting on the hazy periphery are Podaris’ wife (Katherine Cunningham), the psychologist’s husband (Kareem Bandealy) and that well-muscled, ever-threatening figure who seems to link them all together (Anthony Fleming III).

At the loony center of this loopy tale is Eddie Martinez’s sweetly useless Stewart, the guy with the screwdriver jabbed into his brain – and the fez hiding the handle. Stewart finds a soul mate in Maria (Wendy Mateo), the sales person at a travel agency. The first time they meet, when he pops in to buy a plane ticket, Maria embroiders their chat with a stream of F-words. “You swear a lot,” says Stewart. “Oh, never when I’m at work,” is Maria’s assured reply.

There are big roles and multiple roles here, but no minor roles. In one of the show’s best scenes, a forensics pathologist (Thomas J. Cox), leaning into a recumbent body bag, offers Lacke’s psychologist several trenchant observations about a man and woman found charred in the very act of interpersonal relations. Cox’s wryly cast insights make a serious point worthy of television’s CSI mode: What’s wrong with this picture? The plot-pushing answer is plenty.

Sibyl Wickersheimer’s multi-zone set (cop shop, motel, street scene, plus an ultra-cool rising and descending gondola to represent the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier) combines with Christine A. Binder’s evocative lighting to frame and accent each moment of this sparkling theatrical page-turner. Big city, big laughs. Big hit.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Philip R. Smith, left, is the ferocious cop, Bethe Lacke the psychologist and Eddie Martinez the guy with the screwdriver in his head. Descending: Detective Podaris (Philip R. Smith) and psychologist (Beth Lacke) do a dance of mutual suspicion. The detective’s wife (Katherine Cunningham) and her well-muscled option (Anthony Fleming III) are on the lam, but perhaps not on the same page. Philip R. Smith is a cop married to a pretty ex-hooker (Katherine Cunningham). Below: A medical examiner (Thomas J. Cox) notes some oddities about a couple of coupled corpses to a woman (Beth Lacke) who’s more than curious. (Photos by Liz Lauren) 

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