REVIEW: The Undeniable Sound of Right Now
By ANTHONY CHASE
The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is an irresistible little family drama by Laura Eason about the decline of a beloved rock ‘n’ roll bar in Chicago back in 1992. The tightly plotted story, complete with secrets held and confidences betrayed, is propelled by its excellent cast in this handsome Road Less Travelled production, directed by David Oliver.
Dyan Burlingame provides an impressively realistic set, lit by John Rickus, that takes us back to the sort of grungy bar that every baby boomer will recognize from some town, somewhere. Katie Menke’s sound design is excellent, as are Maura Price’s impossibly rapid parade of period costumes.
Scheduling prevented me from seeing the show at its opening, so I am entering the conversation rather late in the game for a show that closes on May 19th. On the topic of Burlingame’s set, it seems that everyone is going gaga over the realism of its set dressing, and rightly so. With the grimy interior and mismatched furniture, this little bar is a feast for the nostalgic eye. We can almost feel our feet sticking to the casually mopped floor.
Some have come close to calling the realism of this set the design achievement of the season, and on that point, I would beg to differ.
Burlingame has designed many fine sets over the years. Indeed, she has racked up five Artie nominations for set design. In recent memory, she has done Speed the Plow, The Nether, The Christians, Dinner with Friends, and Frankenstein for Road Less Traveled. She recently did Sense and Sensibility for Irish Classical Theatre, which required her to conceive a vision for the play inside of a 360-degree seating arrangement. She did Louisiana Bacchae in an improvised West Side performance space. Each of these shows had specific design challenges, and while the realism of The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is great fun, I would hesitate to call it Burlingame’s greatest triumph.
Think of Speed the Plow, notable for the intentional corporate lack of personality in total contrast to The Undeniable Sound of Right Now. The realism, though stark, was no less total. Think of the arresting stage pictures and the sweeping scope of Frankenstein, a design that thrillingly helped the audience forgive a general lack of dramatic focus in the production. Think of the antiseptic yet frightening familiarity of the Big Church television set for The Christians. Think of Dinner with Friends, with its multiple locations and a set augmented with excellent tonally expressive lighting, again, by John Rickus.
Set design is the art of creating “space” that can transform into “place” when actors enter the scene. Eye-popping stage pictures, or set dressing that is startling for its realism or period accuracy do not necessary indicate excellent set design. Often what is being admired is not actually “design” at all, but skillful stagecraft. Set design is not interior decoration. We cannot know if a set design is “good,” no matter how visually pleasing, until we know if the play works on it.
I recall the original set for the Christopher Plummer / Glenda Jackson production of Macbeth, a spooky castle engulfed in vines and trees. The whole thing was scrapped, at great expense, in favor of a stark stage with geometric shapes. The director realized that the Edgar Allen Poe fantasy of the original was swallowing up the play.
I recall arriving at Studio Arena Theatre, during its latter years, and hearing audience members exclaim, “What a terrific set!” as they took their seats, often before an entirely mediocre production. On one occasion, the play was a murder mystery in which the critical moment took place on an apartment balcony. I could not even see the balcony from where I was sitting. I will concede that the set was gorgeous. It was also a piece of shit.
What makes Dyan Burlingame’s set for The Undeniable Sound of Right Now successful is not its realistic look. More than the realism of the set dressing, I was impressed by the extended reality suggested by what we do not see: the changing neighborhood beyond the entry door; the warehouse space of the old slaughterhouse beyond the industrial sliding door; the upstairs apartment to which characters often retreat, or from which they as frequently appear; a performance stage suggested by a fragment of platform and a few amps and guitars. Frequent reference is made to these places during the play. We never see any of them, but we believe that these places exist.
Most importantly, Burlingame has provided a setting in which the audience can see Eason’s characters spring to life believably to embody the story. The total effect is a collaboration of many artists and technicians.
The plot revolves around Hank, played by Peter Palmisano, an old time rock ‘n’ roll presenter, the sort who could spot a rising talent in gestation a generation before the fashions catch up with that artist. He has introduced a who’s who of rock talent at his now legendary bar. As the play begins, the recording industry is at its zenith, but it’s all about to fall apart in the Internet age. In addition, the neighborhood surrounding the bar has seen real estate values soaring, and Hank is in denial about the need for change. Palmisano is very fine in the role and provides a solid anchor for the play.
Hank has a daughter, Lena, who has grown up above the club, reluctantly raised by him and his girlfriend, after the girl’s mother left the scene. While this would seem to be a terrible environment in which to raise a child, on the contrary, father and daughter are uncommonly close, and Lena has thrived in this environment, growing to be a confident, intelligent, and capable young woman.
Christine Turturro, a current Niagara University student, plays Lena. The arrival of this talented young actor is one of the most happy surprises of the theater season. Turturro is sensational. Entirely believable in the role, every moment of her performance is unaffected and real.
Not to be overlooked is the very wonderful Diane DiBernardo as Bette, the faithful sometimes girlfriend, not quite wife of Hank, who has been a surrogate mother to, well, everyone, but most literally to Lena. A woman who maintains an air of vitality that defies the passing years, DiBernado lends Bette both devil-may-care playfulness and adult pragmatism.
Johnny Barden, who is also still a Niagara student, plays the less flashy, but complex role of Nash, Lena’s new DJ boyfriend. He arrives as the prophet of the future, and an unresolvable complication in everyone’s life. Barden assays the role expertly.
Miscast and considerably too mature to play Toby, Jeff Coyle nonetheless presents an earnest and affectionate, if creepily avuncular ex-boyfriend to Lena. In any event, Toby is clever in anything but love, and still devotedly smitten with the very young woman. This is the sort of devotion wherein the youngish man will sacrifice his own happiness for hers.
Nick Stevens plays sleazy and secretly damaged Joey, the play’s most obvious antagonist. In a beautifully underplayed performance, Stevens creates a character who takes the disappointments of his life and forges them into material success.
The script is predictable but fabulously entertaining and using the broadest of brushstrokes, Eason has created characters about whom we come to care quite genuinely. Much of what is fascinating in the play is our own attraction and aversion to changing technologies and values. To facilitate a plot that is not totally bland, the playwright allows Lena to make decisions that run the range from questionable to unlikely. At the same time, the play inspires us to appraise our own recent pasts, life decisions, and the direction of our world. That, I would insist, makes for a marvelous evening at the theater.