Because theater and TV seem at first glance to be variations on the same performing art—people act out a story; we watch—lots of actors, directors, and writers assume they can leap easily between the mediums. But they're different enough that it doesn't always work. A script meant for the stage can come out cramped and talky on TV; something created with TV in mind—easy-to-read characters, an emphasis on visuals, dialogue enhanced by the camera—can feel underwritten or empty in a theatrical production.
That may be what's wrong with Big Lake Big City, Chicago writer Keith Huff's latest effort. Now a successful TV writer, Huff cut his teeth in the Chicago theater. He slaved for 20 years at a regular job, writing plays in the evening and on weekends, before getting his break: a two-man police drama called A Steady Rain, which got the kind of ecstatic reviews in the dailies that propel a show to New York and a writer to LA. A Steady Rain ended up in a 2009 Broadway production starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman; Huff ended up writing for shows like Mad Men and House of Cards.
It doesn't make for awful theater, but all the same it doesn't take long to figure out that Big Lake Big City, a dark police-procedural comedy, is the kind of drama that would work better on TV. Onstage it seems shallow and flat—too busy, with too many characters and too many story lines. An experienced writer, Huff knows how to set up a situation and let his characters play it out. But the individual scenes just don't add up. They lack dramatic heft. They don't help build toward a climax; they just follow one after another, like panels in a storyboard, until the play ends.
Huff begins by throwing a lot of characters and plot strands at the audience. We meet a pair of old-school Chicago police officers; a do-gooder psychologist working to free wrongly convicted death row inmates; a death row exoneree who, ironically enough, sets out to kill the people responsible for his incarceration; a couple of guys in the morgue with a dark sense of humor; and so on. Over the course of the play we see how the various characters' lives are woven together. The story that unfolds is fun enough, though there are some holes in it, including a major improbability concerning a couple, murdered while making love, who are found frozen in a nonmissionary position.
Director David Schwimmer, another theater-to-TV-to-theater guy, has put together a great cast here. Philip R. Smith and Danny Goldring deliver superb performances as the archetypally grouchy, jaded, middle-aged police partners. And Thomas J. Cox and Anthony Fleming III prove to be quite the chameleons, appearing throughout the play in a variety of roles.
In fact, the play is packed with actors capable of playing multiple roles. This is a blessing and a curse: it reveals the depth of Schwimmer's actors but also the shallowness of Huff's characters, most of whom are little more than a haircut, an accent, a costume, and a detail that either draws upon or plays against a prevailing ethnic or gender stereotype. At times Huff seems to have trouble keeping these straight, as with a Latina whose English is so faulty that she confuses Xanax with Ex-Lax but who, at other times, is a very fluent English speaker.
This inconsistency extends to the tone of the show. Schwimmer has directed it so that at times it feels like a hard-boiled film noir, at other times like a ghoulish dark comedy (the coroners practice their golf swing on human heads), and at others like a very screwy screwball comedy. And every once in a while there are Pirandellian moments when the characters actually comment on the production. These get a laugh. But even a laugh, in such a scattershot production, is a mixed signal.