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Old Town Strawdog Theatre Company

Politics is a family business—always has been. The monarchic system of parent-to-child succession seems antithetical to our brand of electoral democracy, but it’s more common than we’d like to think in America—and certainly in Chicago. Just for example: Richard M. Daley was groomed to take over his dad’s job as mayor. Jesse Jackson paved the way for Jesse Jr. to become a congressman. Lisa Madigan, daughter of Illinois senate powerhouse Mike Madigan, is the state’s attorney general; Todd Stroger inherited the Cook County Board presidency from his father, John; Alderman Roman Pucinski’s daughter Aurelia became clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court and later a judge; and Alderman Richard Mell’s daughter Deb is running for the state assembly.

“Deb Mell believes that one person can make a difference,” her campaign Web site proclaims. “Growing up in a family dedicated to serving others, Deb has witnessed firsthand the positive impact one person can make.” Family values and the power of the individual are two cornerstones of our culture, but they don’t always go hand in hand. Mell’s invocation of her family undercuts the individualism implied by the “one person can make a difference” line. That’s especially true when you consider the skeletons political families keep in their closets, as Mell—sister-in-law of Governor Blagojevich—may learn as she tries to steer clear of controversies involving Blago’s campaign contributions.

Brett Neveu and Mikhail Fiksel’s new musical, Old Town, concerns a fictitious Chicago political clan struggling with the clash of family loyalties and individual aspirations. Set at an election night party in a downtown hotel, it focuses on Cindy Weltz, daughter of an embattled Cook County board president who’s running for reelection. Cindy holds office herself, as county clerk, and she’s clearly been groomed to follow in her father’s footsteps. But her dad, who’s upstairs in his suite waiting for the polls to close (and never appears onstage), is beset by scandals and personal problems. If he loses the race, it may spell the end of Cindy’s ambitions as well.

Thing is, Cindy’s ambitions were foisted on her. She’s uncommitted to the life she’s been trained for and unhappy about the baggage that goes with it. That baggage includes a husband she doesn’t love but can’t divorce for the sake of her image; her stepmother, Liz, a trophy wife half as old as Cindy’s father; an intrusive press, represented by pushy TV reporter Karen Mosher; and the contributors and power brokers to whom her family is indebted. But since her brother Scotty is a useless, sardonic drunk who wants nothing to do with politics, the burden of carrying on the family legacy rests squarely on Cindy’s shoulders.

The only person Cindy really feels like talking to is Daniel, her father’s campaign manager. He’s a nice guy, and in love with her—and she knows it. But their tentative conversations are constantly being interrupted. If it’s not Karen seeking an interview or Liz wandering around trying to “take the temperature of the room,” it’s a phone call bearing the latest exit polls of “those people” on the south side (the only allusion to racial politics in a show with an all-white cast). When Cindy and Daniel do find themselves alone, their conversation consists of trivialities punctuated by silences. “How’s your family?” “Can I get you a drink?” “Would you like some coffee?” And when they try to express deeper feelings, they resort to cliches: “If the rest of your time were spent with me, I’d be living once more,” Daniel sings at one point.

Neveu, who wrote both the script and lyrics, has emerged as one of Chicago’s most significant playwrights on the strength of his ability to write dialogue that’s superficially banal and flat but conveys depths of ambivalence and alienation. That style carries over effectively into his songs as well. Most lyricists strive to display their cleverness in witty rhymes and offbeat images, and too often the resulting doggerel sounds strained. But Neveu keeps his words simple and direct. His lines rhyme, but the rhymes never seem forced, and the sometimes trite images ring true as a reflection of the mind-set of his characters. Complexity, irony, and nuance are not useful modes of communication in politics (as Barack Obama is learning the hard way), so inhabitants of that world think and speak in platitudes and slogans. “The future is now,” someone tells Cindy. “Don’t give up on your dreams.” The chorus sings of “politics as usual,” of “a city that works,” and when they assert their lifetime commitment to Chicago, they put the matter bluntly: “We’re here till we die.”

Lyrics like these are not the stuff of hit tunes. Neither is Fiksel’s jazzy score, characterized by the offbeat, sometimes abrasive instrumental textures of his band, the Denizens. The melodies and thick harmonies of his music have a scruffy, oddball feel that suits Neveu’s words, making the songs sound like inevitable extensions of the spoken dialogue.

The excellent actors—notably Kat McDonnell as Cindy, Anne Sheridan Smith as Liz, Christopher Hainsworth as Scotty, John Ferrick as Daniel, and Tom Hickey as corrupt fund-raiser Andy Ringer—don’t make their characters likable, just real. Director Kyle Hamman’s staging captures the feel of a downbeat political reception—the kind of event where people come in with high hopes, then lose interest as the evening drags on and defeat permeates the air. Men in suits and women in cocktail dresses mill around the stage, gossiping, bickering, and drinking free booze as they await the official concession speech that the candidate feels duty-bound to give and his supporters feel duty-bound to hear, even though everyone would just as soon go home. The naturalistic blandness is broken only by the occasional absurd musical number (Eileen Mallary has choreographed Karen’s on-air interview with Liz as a tango, for instance) that further reinforces the disconnect between Cindy and the people around her.

The script’s biggest shortcoming is its lack of detail. What are the scandals that plague her father? What exactly is wrong with her marriage? We’re never told. Perhaps Neveu is being deliberately vague in order to distill the elements of the plot to their essence. In drama, though, universality emerges from specifics. Right now this world premiere feels like a rough draft. But Old Town is an intriguing, quirky little show that, with some work, could have a future.v