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Theater: Street Scene
by Scott C. Morgan
2004-06-16


Playwright: Elmer Rice

The Artistic Home, 1420 W. Irving Park

Phone: 齅) 404-1100; $18 to $20

Runs through July 11

Cramming a sprawling New York tenement into a tiny Chicago storefront would seem foolish. Yet The Artistic Home, a small Equity storefront theater, does just that with its ambitious take on Elmer Rice's 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Street Scene.

Rice's verisimo drama calls for a huge ethnic stew of economically and emotionally depressed New Yorkers, which is probably why so few professional theaters tackle it today.

Read more story below....

The Artistic Home cast of 19 (and one dog) get around this cost-prohibitive casting by adeptly switching its actors around in multiple roles. Even so, some minor characters (like the soon-to-be evicted Hildebrand family) are cut and mentioned only in passing.

Having such compelling kitchen-sink drama at close range can be intense, and director Kathy Scambiatterra milks out several great performances amid Kurt Boetcher's dissected set of hovering windows and painted bricks. But such closeness also points up minor flaws which the Artistic Home can't fully conceal.

Some cast members aren't convincingly age appropriate to their characters, while some others sound uncomfortable with Rice's goulash of immigrant dialects. The multiple casting also shatters the play's realism at times (not everyone is able to pull off Katherine O'Neill's expert quintet of transformations ranging from a boozy floozie to a stick-up-her-butt social worker).

But the pluses of this Street Scene mostly outweigh the negatives. One bright spot is Betsy McKnight's gutsy take on Rose Murrant, the young woman whose family violently crumbles around her. McKnight plays against her character's stock ingenue aspects by intelligently flirting with Rose's awareness of her ability to turn men's heads.

Equity actress Susan Burke makes dog owner Mrs. Jones into a fun comic character, despite her bigoted outbursts (call her the bitch with the bitch). Pete Fitzsimmons' violent cab driver Vincent is menacing, especially when he lays into John Luzar's intellectual law student Sam Kaplan.

Rice's common folk drama may sound hackneyed at times, but its examination of poverty and racial prejudices still make it ring true today. One can see why the emotional raw ingredients of Street Scene inspired composer Kurt Weill and poet Langston Hughes to collaborate with Rice on its 1947 Broadway opera adaptation. The Artistic Home's production may be lacking Weill's glorious music, but it still has the dramatic power to lure you into that sweaty and mean corner of New York that one character dismisses as 'a cheap, common dump.'

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