Victory Gardens Theater

You’ve got these two brothers: one’s an ex-con trying to keep clean, the other’s a cop who’s given up his beat to work a cushy desk job. The cop has tried to distance himself from the brother he once threw in jail for being a dope fiend and a thief, while the ex-con resents his middle-class brother, who left him to take care of their mother alone. But the ties of the past are not easily broken, and before the brothers can face the future they must come face-to-face with their past and each other.

If Freefall were an after-school television special or an entry in a high school theater festival, you might applaud its earnestness. If it were an episode of Kojak you might even find it entertaining. But when it’s a work from the highly celebrated Chicago playwright Charles Smith, winner of many a fellowship and teacher of play writing at Northwestern, one has to expect more than this trite, half-baked screenplay treatment posing as a play.

Smith says tongue in cheek in the Victory Gardens Theater newsletter that what he’d like people to say after seeing this production is: “This would make a great film, let’s offer Charles a very lucrative film deal.” It’s true that Smith’s play has all the earmarks of a Hollywood movie, but one might argue that even the hacks on the west coast have no particular need for a script they’ve already done a thousand times.

Grant the cop lives in a house on Chicago’s south side with his wife, Alex, who keeps bugging him to go with her to her parents’ home in Iowa for Christmas. But Grant is distracted, knowing that his shady brother Monk is back on the streets. So far Monk hasn’t broken any laws, but he’s been seen sleeping under a viaduct and talking with the drug lord Spoon, who’s offered him a lucrative gig as one of his henchmen.

Monk and Grant’s confrontations lay bare their history of resentment. Monk accuses Grant of deserting him, while Grant maintains that in his heart he never turned his back on the family. In the end Grant must decide whether he should welcome his brother or shut the door on him for good, and Monk must decide whether he should be loyal to Grant or to his brothers on the street, who demand he slay the cop to prove his allegiance to them. Alex’s family reunion in Iowa never comes to pass, as she, Grant, and Monk realize that the time has come for them to start their own family here in Chicago.

The plot isn’t particularly original, and neither are most of the play’s themes and dialogue. There are echoes of the estranged brothers in Miller’s The Price, in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, and even in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman.” Not surprisingly, there are allusions to Cain and Abel as well: Spoon asks the biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Smith switches his focus from Grant’s middle-class life-style to Monk’s life on the streets and back, but he isn’t effective at capturing either atmosphere. For both milieus his writing is stiff and forced. Alex speaks only in good-wife aphorisms, demanding that Grant pick up a phone and call home once in a while because it makes her nervous when he goes “cruising in that neighborhood.” And despite Smith’s penchant for peppering street talk with liberal “my brothers” and “muthafuckas,” the exchanges between Monk and Spoon play like a suburbanite’s sanitized notion of ghettospeak. In one particularly embarrassing moment, Monk uses the classic Fat Albert insult, “Why don’t you make like a tree and leave?” It does not sound authentic.

Cliche is layered upon cliche as the banal dialogue mirrors the banal plot. Is there any play these days that doesn’t contain the lines “You’re changing into someone I don’t know” and “He’s the only family I’ve got”? Smith attempts to inject some politics, addressing the plight of the urban homeless and making Spoon mock Bush’s 1,000 points of light, but the presidential reference already feels dated.

With the exception of A.C. Smith’s outstanding performance as the bitter, streetwise Monk, Dennis Zacek’s production rarely gets better than just average. Though Tim Rhoze as Grant introduces some dramatic flare to his confrontations with Monk, his scenes with Alex (Leslie Holland) have a strained, scene-study feel about them. Malcolm-Jamal Warner–who is singled out by Zacek in the press materials as “one of the nation’s outstanding African-American artists”–gives a one-note performance as Spoon, rarely varying his attitude or his delivery.

James Dardenne in his set design attempts to capture both the street’s grittiness and the comforts of home by surrounding Grant’s cozy living room with elements of the urban landscape. The living room is flanked by two big garbage drums, intended one might presume to tell us not to ignore the poverty and homelessness around us while we rest on our comfy couches. The effect is nearly the opposite, however: the living room makes the streets seem more homey, less threatening. Even the trash onstage has been neatly arranged. The same might be said of the play.