The times they are a-changin’ again: Laura Eason revisits Chicago in the grunge era

Lena (Margo Seibert) faces off against Hank (Jeb Brown) on the rock-club set of Laura Eason's new play. (Photograph by Sandra Coudert)

Lena (Margo Seibert) faces off against Hank (Jeb Brown) on the rock-club set of Laura Eason’s new play. (Photograph by Sandra Coudert)

Near the beginning of Laura Eason’s The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, rock-bar proprietor Hank asks, “How can a D.J. be good?,” arguing that a disc jockey only spins music that someone else has made. It’s 1992 in Chicago, and Hank has been running his now-fabled hole-in-the-wall joint for 25 years. Kiss auditioned there; Stevie Nicks left her scarf after a performance one night; the Clash did a secret show there. The question has a personal dimension for Hank; his daughter, Lena, who helps him run the place, has recently taken up with a D.J. named Nash and is getting into rave culture. More is at stake than Lena’s tastes and the new trends in the music scene, for the landlord senses an upturn in the neighborhood’s fortunes and has just decided to raise the rent.

As Eason has dramatized the situation, some of the issues are a bit schematic while others are blurred. But she has embedded everything in the particulars of time, place, and person, and she lets her characters sing. Nash is fervent in his love for DJing, which for him is the next thing, and Hank is just as passionate about any form of rock ‘n’ roll played live; at one point, re-pledging his allegiance, he plugs a Fender guitar into a Fender practice amp and lets fly with a “Sympathy for the Devil” riff. (The riff may be a cadenza in the script, open to differing renditions as the performer sees fit.) As it’s currently being presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Women’s Project Theater, at the Rattlestick location in New York’s West Village, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is a time trip to Chi-town in the early 90s, under the gentle guidance of director Kirsten Kelly. The production design is a compact and atmospheric wonder: set by John McDermott; costumes by Sarah J. Holden; lighting by Joel Moritz; props, including the requisite box of cassettes, by Judy Merrick; and sound by Lindsay Jones, which got me right at the start with a snippet of “Valerie Loves Me.” In a fine stroke of casting, the tall and lean Jeb Brown, in the role of Hank, immediately registers as a musical type—he resembles Kris Kristofferson and has the same gruff charm. You can even hear Chicago in the accent of Lusia Strus (as Hank’s ex-wife)—not the broad South Side tones of the stereotype but, as she explained to me after the performance, something a little more north- and west- side. You may leave the theater hoping to pop around the corner for deep-dish pizza.

In this fleet, intermissionless, hour-and-45-minute play, Eason not only reconstructs a moment in musical history but also remixes a theatrical model from the past: as the New Yorker capsule review smartly points out, her drama offers a take on Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard—call it a reduction for chamber ensemble. Eason nicely adapts some motifs from Chekhov’s ending in her own: as the lighting intensifies and the pulse of the new musical style rises from next door, just before the blackout, Lena takes down from the wall a guitar—an “ax,” in the lingo of those who play them. Though these are delicate threads in the fabric of her play, which won’t bear much stress, it’s also worth noting that Eason has departed from her model, or at least historicized it. Chekhov’s great play of dispossession took place in what was more or less his own time, whereas Eason has situated her drama behind us; her characters’ present is our past, and the new developments that uproot her central quartet have since then been caught up in the flow of time. Thus, in a sense, Eason has written a double valediction. The sound that’s really undeniable, now as always, is simply that of mutability.

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