By Michael Rychlewski
Directed by Richard Shavzin
Produced by Dashnight Productions
At Theatre Wit, Chicago
CHOPS = “Ya got ’em or ya don’t”
Memories of the Rush Street 50-60’s jazz-infused night club scene leads to stories, jazz questions. and strained friendships
Chicago playwright Michael Rychlewski, a veteran teacher at Schurz high school, did something that many (included me) have vowed to do – write a play or short story using the fantastical bar room stories from the aging characters who inhabited neighborhood bars in the 80’s. These shot-and-beer characters held a young guy’s attention with their colorful stories of old-time Chicago from mob to night club stories. I do have some memories of these characters, but time has faded most stories.
So, kudos to Rychlewski and director Richard Shavzin for vividly bringing back the stories from the Rush Street nightclubs of the 50-60’s in the world premiere of Chops. Clubs like The Black Orchid, The Happy Medium, London House, and Mr. Kelly’s were the hotspots of Chicago nightlife.
Jazz dominated as Ela and Sarah sang with all the famous jazz groups rocked the street! Lisa and Barabara sang; Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington performed, and comics like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, George Carlin, among others, broke comic boundaries to loving crowds. Rychlewski plants many references to these places and events with much jazz trivia thrown-in. Younger audiences members should read the director’s notes before the show to get the needed references.
We are in a small northside Chicago bar (set design by Grant Sabin), the nervous bartender/owner Vince (Larry Neumann, Jr) is about ready to close on a slow Sunday night when an old friend Walt (the hyper Randy Steinmeyer) enters with a tall sexy woman, Kaki (Clare Cooney), for a nightcap and to enjoy Vince’s ultimate jazz jukebox. Over drinks, Walt, Vince, and especially Kaki quiz each other on jazz trivia. Who plays what instruments in what number with which group? These three really enjoy their jazz! It’s 1984 and the glory days of jazz and Rush Street are memories to cherish. Walt is back from prison and he is determined to demonstrate that he still has “chops.”
After a few drinks and some sweet jazz, Philly (Daniel Patrick Sullivan) barges in from the backdoor. The three guys have a strained relationship over the years as each uses their chops to deal shadily to make money. Living on the margins is tough and dangerous. We hear Walt’s story of a wife in Mexico and Philly’s adventures over the last nine months when he disappeared from Chicago.
The intrigue escalates as a storytelling contest emerges as the three characters try to win the $300 prize, with Kaki being the judge. These stories are terrific, funny and believable as they are some of the highlights of this wonderfully written play.
But as the relationship between Philly and Walt and Vince this night continues, things start to play out in unexpected ways. Without giving away more, let me say that the plot twists are clever and the acting and characterizations add to the twists. What was a slice-of-life drama becomes a will calculated deception by a desperate man.
Chops is a winner on many levels. It is a nostalgic remembrance of the Rush Street night club era as well as a clever con plot to gain cash. Randy Steinmeyer and Daniel Patrick Sullivan have a terrific stage rivalry with Larry Neumann, Jr. contributing passive stability. These outstanding actors, under Richard Shavzin’s tight direction, make this 88 minute one-act zing along. You’ll be engrossed into the world of jazz and conmen as the glimpse into a lost era finds these guys trapped into to who they are. This show is a treat.
Date Reviewed: July 14, 2016
For more info checkout the CHOPS page at theatreinchicago.com
At Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, www.theaterwit.org, 773-975-8150, tickets $35 – $25 for seniors and students, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm , Sundays at 3pm, running time is 88 minutes without intermission, through August 14, 2016