Dueling Critics take the 'Northwest Highway'

June 10, 2011


KELLY: Everything seems to be coming down at once on Officer John Patrick Moore of the Chicago Police. His partner may have stolen a brick of cocaine from a suspect. His girlfriend has just discovered she's pregnant. His best friend from high school shows up out of the blue.  His estranged aunt reappears to quarrel over the sale of the house he lives and grew up in. 

In short, Northwest Highway is a combination cop drama, coming-of-age/fear-of-commitment story, abortion debate, and illustration of how you can't go home again even if you're still living there. Though the Gift Theatre's production of ensemble member William Nedved's play does its best to juggle all these components, in my judgment it doesn't succeed because the task is impossible. It's made even more difficult by the playwright's choice to make the central character a complete cipher whose only role in the goings-on seems to be to say "no" to whatever anyone wants him to do. So to me the show's like a hurricane, with lots of force swirling around an empty center. What about you, Jonathan?  Doubtless you have a different perspective--after all, you were sitting two seats to my right.

JONATHAN: As always, Kelly, you are further left than me, but that doesn't make you more sympathetic to the blue collar working man of Chicago's Jefferson Park 'hood, where this world premiere is set. Actually, of course, there isn't a blue collar guy in the play as even the cops are college-educated. Even more surprising is that I agree with you. John Moore's estranged aunt pretty much sums it up when she says, "My nephew is infantile when it comes to commitment," whether to a knocked-up girlfriend or a real estate agent. But an indecisive, wishy-washy hero maketh not a strong play. The larger problem may be that Nedved needs a longer play if he wants to put so much food on the plate. 85 minutes isn't enough. It leads to an ocean of exposition rather baldly laid out in the first of (I think) eight scenes and not enough later on: I don't know how the brick of cocaine--which does finally show up--ended up where it did. What did I miss, Kelly? I wasn't asleep 'cause you kept poking me in the ribs.

KELLY: You're right (gasp): it's not at all clear who hid the cocaine. But this may be a deliberate choice on the playwright's part, leaving the audience to wonder whether our (anti-) hero is as dishonest in public matters as in private ones. Where I tripped was in an exchange between John and Rayna (the pregnant girlfriend) over her having thrown out a jar of dirt, or was it his father's ashes? Eventually it's resolved, but by that time the thematic point has been covered up by layers of events--most of which take place offstage, another weakness. Unlike most plays whose first draft can stand to lose 20 minutes, this could stand to gain that much. Having a second act would compel Mr. Nedved to pick a focal point and stick to it.

No need to beat it to death--let's talk instead about the acting, which is uniformly fine. Only one member of the Gift ensemble is in the show and yet the entire cast maintains the high level of passionate realism for which the company is known. I was particularly impressed by Diane Mair as Rayna, who manages to make persuasive her love of this man-child, right through to the end.

JONATHAN: Oh, my goodness, Kelly! You HAVE been listening to me, lo, these many years, and you've learned something about how a play should be constructed. Well done! As for the acting, yes, I agree that Ms. Mair makes Rayna into a believable and complex character.  And Boyd Harris grew on me as John, actually becoming more effective and convincing as his character grew more and more unlikeable. Both actors, and their three supporting players, have been well-guided by director Si Osborne, who takes a very good swing at an imperfect new play pitch.

FYI, it's worth noting that Gift Theatre has several writers and would-be writers within its ensemble and affiliates, and it stands by them, preferring to take the risk of producing new scripts rather than relegating them to endless readings and workshops.

KELLY: Oh, yeah, you taught me everything I know. Just a reminder of how old you are! In any case, while I agree that it's a virtue for Gift to bring new works to fruition instead of condemning new works to a permanent limbo of tinkering, it's clear that this particular play could have benefited from some more work. Its raw feel reminds me of a number of commissioned works we've seen at much bigger theaters, when it's apparent that the schedule took precedence over the imperatives of writing. 

Let me put in a word of praise for Adam Lucas Verness, the set designer, who has created the perfect rundown Jefferson Park frame house and the perfect backyard to go with it. In a play that's so much about attachment to place, his set is practically another character.

JONATHAN: Try as you might to make me angry at you, Kelly, I just can't manage it this week as your foolhardiness is precisely the same as MY foolhardiness, even down to praising the set. The Gift Theatre space is very small, very shallow and very wide, so it perfectly suits a side view of an old house on a long, narrow standard Chicago lot. I bought such a modest frame home in a not-yet-gentrified 'hood in 1978 and sold it 23 years later for 10 times what I paid for it, investing my profits in the international drug market, thereby financing the rich and ostentatious lifestyle I enjoy today, bombing around town in my 2003 Tracker 4x4. Perhaps the cop hero of Northwest Highway has similar ideas. This well-acted play continues at the Gift Theatre, in downtown Jefferson Park, through July 17. P.S. Congratulations to Gift artistic director Michael Thornton, who was married in April!