After a successful debut this past spring with Stephen Belber's taut drama Tape, Robert and Sean O'Connell's fledgling GroundWorks Theatre weighs in with another play that relies on gritty, in-your-face performances. But whereas Tape told a coherent tale of manipulation and motivations at cross purposes, the new piece, Hellcab, is an episodic look at a day in the life of a Chicago cabbie.
The personable Charles Howard is perfectly cast as the hardworking hack who begins his shift early on a frigid morning during the Christmas season. Disparate characters, almost 30 in all, hail the cab, and Howard puts up stoically with their idiosyncrasies, intensity, weirdness and crassness. Naturally, he does so because it's his job, and, like all cab drivers, he's in it for the cash. But Will Kern's script makes it apparent that, by day's end, our hero is really a pretty decent guy, who displays a lot more dignity than the supposedly respectable folks who end up taking both a figurative and literal backseat to his Everyman persona.
If nothing else, the Kern script is authentic. In set designer Jonathan Stephens' skeletal, somewhat expressionistic taxi set piece, the cabbie traverses the breadth and width of the Windy City's streets, his passengers barking out actual Chicago addresses and landmarks while providing glimpses into their sad, dreary, eccentric and occasionally very interesting lives. There's plenty of humor afoot, and Howard's reactions to the kaleidoscope of stoners, religious nuts, adulterers, insensitive businessmen, etc., keep the play in empathic overdrive. Things get a little racy too, making Hellcab no doubt the only Christmas-themed theater piece ever to feature simulated cunnilingus, enacted with a darkly gleeful exaggeration by Jack Chambers, with an eager assist from Melissa Landry.
Four other actorsJim Wright, Lisa Davis, Deborah Knott and Leslie Wallacefill out the cast, and they each revel in their multiple roles. Unlike the indie film version of Hellcab, in which every character was played by a different actor, the stage play draws part of its strength from its intimate ensemble feel, with familiar players rejoining the scene in loosely thematic twists on previous roles. Hence, Wright shows up early on as an unctuous, womanizing corporate type, then returns late in the game as a good-spirited, big-tipping architect who helps to put the holiday season in some needed perspective for the psychically drained driver. Similarly, Knott is first glimpsed as a sex-obsessed lawyer, then reappears in the show's poignant penultimate scene as a rape victim. Davis is especially good as a drunk whose inappropriate but clearly innocent remarks evoke Howard's mock fear, which draws a sincere chuckle from the audience.
The actors thrive under Bob O'Connell's direction, and Hellcab provides an eventful 70 minutes of theatrical engagement in its one long act. Furthermore, as adult-pitched seasonal fare, one would be hard-pressed to see anything of its kind on a Music City stage during Christmastime. Howard's likable performance keeps the show's motor running apace, and the crazy-quilt supporting players go along wholeheartedly for the ride.
The production falters conceptually in that there is not one person of color in the cast. This is Chicago, after alla big American city that boasts a huge African American population and an ever-growing Hispanic one. Chambers and Landry give their best shot at Pakistani and other ethnic types, but the reality-check abruptness of broad-shouldered urban life is slightly undercut in this white-bread version. There are some very good African American actors in Nashville; it's a shame that GroundWorks couldn't have drafted at least one into what is an otherwise worthwhile entertainment.
Hellcab plays through Dec. 18 at the Darkhorse Theater. For information, call 262-5485.
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