Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Lottery Day
Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson


James Vincent Meredith, Tony Santiago,
Michele Vazquez, Pat Whalen, J. Nicole Brooks,
Robert Cornelius, Tommy Rivera-Vega,
Sydney Charles, and Aurora Adachi-Winter

Photo by Liz Lauren
In the winter of 2012, then 26-year-old playwright Ike Holter burst onto Chicago's theater scene with Hit the Wall, a drama set amidst the June 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City. The play was produced by a small young company called The Inconvenience as part of Steppenwolf's annual festival of plays produced by storefront companies. It became one of the hottest tickers in town, was remounted for a one-weekend run the same summer, and produced in New York at the Off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre for a two-month run the next year. The following year proved to be another pivotal one for Holter. Just two weeks after Hit the Wall was remounted commercially in Chicago, Holter's Exit Strategy was produced by the storefront Jackalope Theatre and opened to rave reviews. Exit Strategy was a drama about the closing of a public school in an African-American Chicago neighborhood—one of many school closings that began to turn public opinion away from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In spring of 2016, Holter's words were back on Chicago storefront stages with two plays that opened within a month of each other: Sender at A Red Orchid Theatre (where Michael Shannon is an active ensemble member); and Prowess back at Jackalope. Holter's The Wolf at the End of the Block followed in 2017, and in early 2018, the Chicago Tribune's chief theatre critic Chris Jones revealed that Holter's plays beginning with Exit Strategy were part of a planned seven-play cycle, with the final three plays scheduled to be produced over the following fourteen months. All the cycle plays would be set in the fictitious Chicago neighborhood of "Rightlynd," Chicago's imagined "51st Ward" (in reality, there are only 50 wards). The last of these seven plays, now called "The Rightlynd Saga," is Lottery Day, now at the Goodman Theatre. It follows the play entitled Rightlynd, produced at the regional Equity theatre Victory Gardens last fall, and Red Rex, which opened at the tiny but prestigious (and now Equity) Steep Theatre in January and closed on March 30th. Appropriately enough, Red Rex concerns a storefront theater company that is located in the now-gentrifying "Rightlynd" neighborhood.

Lottery Day's staging at the Goodman—Chicago's oldest, largest and I presume most generously budgeted non-profit theatre—is a triumph of sorts for Chicago's storefront scene. Not only does it bring Holter to one of the stages of this vaunted company (that notably premiered two of August Wilson's plays), but also the director Lili-Anne Brown, who told me her resume was entirely in storefront theater before directing Hairspray at Milwaukee's Skylight Music Theatre last fall. The cast and design team have strong roots in Chicago storefront theater as well.

The visibility of Lottery Day at Chicago's largest theatre, with its huge subscriber base and enviable advertising budget, will doubtless bring new audiences to Holter's work. However, I would caution against anyone using Lottery Day as their point of entry into this impressive writer's canon. Holter's desire to write a capstone play, bringing in at least six characters from the previous plays of his saga, feels more like a writing exercise than an inspired drama that can stand on its own.

Lottery Days's premise is that Mallory (J. Nicole Brooks), described as the woman who "runs the block," has invited a group of neighbors and others in her circle for a backyard barbecue. Mallory has been a neighborhood activist, a shelterer to the homeless, and a friend and de facto mother to many in the neighborhood. Her guests for the barbecue include six characters from the earlier plays: the former assistant principal of Exit Strategy's closed school Ricky (Pat Whalen); the alderman's assistant Zora (Sydney Charles), seen in Prowess; a retailer from Rightlynd (Robert Cornelius); a restaurateur from The Wolf at the End of the Block (Tony Santiago); the theater's stage manager Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter) from Red Rex; and a divorced, upwardly mobile single mom from Sender (McKenzie Chinn). There are also three new characters in addition to hostess Mallory. They include neighbor Vivien (Michelle Vazquez), an annoying divorced mom who has made a fortune buying distressed properties and building new homes like the one she lives in next to Mallory's old frame house; a married male friend, Avery (James Vincent Meredith); and a homeless wannabe rapper Ezekiel (Tommy Rivera-Vega).

As the play unfolds, it becomes evident that Mallory has a darker plan for her party. She has come into a large sum of money and plans to give it away to whichever guest wins a contest she has devised. The first act, about 70 minutes long, introduces the characters (or for those familiar with the earlier plays, re-introduces them), and the sheer number of dramatis personae leaves them mostly faintly drawn. (It's possible those who have seen more of the earlier plays than I have might benefit from that prior exposure to the characters, but we were well into the second act before I recognized Zora from Prowess or Tori from Red Rex.) Holter has a unique talent for creating characters who annoying talk too much. One such character per play is funny. Five such people (Mallory, Zora, Ezekiel, Vivien and Ricky) is ... five times as annoying.

This exposition makes for a very long set up and much of the first act involves these characters speaking over other, shouting, and making insults and jokes (many of which are quite funny), with most of it at a high volume and pitch. Brooks's Mallory is particularly given to shouting and I found much of the first act unintelligible. In fairness, the audience was howling in laughter most of the time, so it's possible I may simply not have understood all the cultural references and slang.

Mallory's contest has three stages; the first is a scavenger hunt for which the actors stay on stage hunting while the audience takes an intermission break. The 50-minute second act is more comprehensible than the first, with less overlapping dialogue and more dramatic tension as the backstories and underlying conflicts emerge—most significantly, some violent events of earlier years that explain Mallory's behavior. The final stage of Mallory's contest owes much to the "Get the Guests" game from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: each guest has to endure verbal abuses from all the other guests for one minute without reacting. It's a device that brings tensions to the forefront and leads to the play's conclusion, but feels derivative and contrived and not at all representative of Holter's talent.

Having seen only two of the previous plays in the "Rightlynd Saga," Prowess, which I loved, and Red Rex, which impressed me less, I can't judge the saga in its entirely. Lottery Day certainly succeeds in its observations of this changing neighborhood—changes that dispossess its longtime residents in the name of urban renewal. Holter's end point of Lottery Day seems to be that the neighbors are ultimately abandoning each other—disbanding their community and their solidarity. It's a topic well worth exploring, and together with the strong work of the cast and director makes Lottery Day a significant work, but not one as satisfying as his Hit the Wall or Prowess. If you don't know Ike Holter's writing, you should get to know him. Just don't start with this one.

Lottery Day, through April 28, 2019, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.goodmantheatre.org/ or call 312-443-3800.


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