Stage Review: When Rock Clubs Age Out

TUSORN#1The kind of well-worn rock club set designer Matthew J. Keenan creates for the production of Laura  Easton’s “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” at the Keegan Theatre is so authentic, with its decades of rock posters, stickers and graffiti, you can almost smell the stale beer in the floorboards. The instincts not to visit the restroom rise to full force.

As a shrine to the glories that have marched through it — pre-makeup Kiss, The Clash in a secret show, Nirvana at its start — clubs like the fictional Hank’s Bar in Chicago were becoming a kind of museum as long ago as 1992, when this play was set.

Hailed as an arbiter of indie rock, Hank still wears his Doors, Lynyrd Skynrd and AC/DC T-shirts; it’s the employee (Kevin Hasser) with an unrequited yearn for the daughter who wears the Joy Division and Smashing Pumpkins T-shirts.

Even then, though, a younger generation was moving to electronica, hip-hop and anonymous pop, on the road to making guitars as obsolete on the musical front lines as crossbows were in battle.

This is the crossroads at the center of the play directed by Brandon McCoy, where divisions couldn’t more clearly be defined.

Grizzled before his time Hank clings to his memories, his battered guitar and his strict definitions of what’s authentic; his frustrated daughter Lena keeps trying to convince him to have a DJ night, if only because the rent is being raised and they may lose the place (in that hoariest of melodrama tropes).

That she’s dating a DJ who wants to move his act there exacerbates the divide.

For a production so dependent on music, there’s very little of it around. Sound designer Veronica J. Lancaster drops in musical cues between scenes (where stagehands dressed as club STAFF move chairs and change the bulletin board of who’s playing that night) but switches everything off once dialog begins. For all the authenticity of the set, it’s upended by the lack of music playing in the background (the sound system is always on in the background at these clubs, particularly when they’re cleaning up).

To be fair, it’s been awfully difficult to accurately translate the magic of rock ’n’ roll into credible theater over the years; few works have been able to bridge the gap.

As the venerable club owner, Chris Stezin seems wound way too tight and barricaded behind his strict musical preferences. Nobody would last decades in the club business without being willing to toss some curveballs – to punk, rap, metal, alt country, neo folk – in order to adapt to changing taste. (Further, he might have become a little better guitar player over the years than the guitar store plinking he does).

Jessie Power as his daughter seems to have picked up her old man’s stubbornness. The way they stomp around the stage and yell makes you think they might make use of the liquor behind the bar to mellow them out.

Ryan Seller is convincing as the ambitious DJ, who frankly can’t quite see the division his music seems to create in others. As the creepy son of a landlord who comes around with bad news, Josh Sticklin is just right – a Don Jr. in our midst.

Susan Marie Rhea is a nice presence, sporting rock gear and serving as a bridge between dad and daughter; it’s a quiet leadership quality that she likely brings as the theater’s artistic director.

Easton, a veteran writer on “House of Cards,” strives to bring a wider story about changing generations in her work, but can’t quite get out of the club (though the suggestion of a rave-sized audience next door is some marvelous stagecraft). By act two, she plumb runs out of words too, as a long and embarrassing guitar feedback workout by Hank (that never quite approaches electric Neil Young) leads to his throwing furniture around. You almost look forward to the bar closing after that.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” continues through May 27 at the Keegan Theatre, Washington, DC. 


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