Chicago Theater Review: THE GILDED AGE: A TALE OF TODAY (City Lit)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: THE GILDED AGE: A TALE OF TODAY (City Lit)

by Lawrence Bommer on January 18, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Subtitled “A Tale of Today,” Mark Twain’s early novel The Gilded Age was written in (and from) 1873, a dozen years before Huckleberry Finn rafted down the Mississippi. A conventional potboiler, its chapters were presumably grabbed from headlines detailing the scandalous Grant administration. Mr. Clemens’ 630-page epic, which anticipates Gore Vidal’s insider satires of Washington cupidity, was also Twain’s one collaborative venture–with (unequal) co-author Charles Dudley Warner, who composed 12 chapters of a disposable subplot (here happily omitted).  This well-made slice of fiction would be forgettable if Twain weren’t such a stem-winding scene builder and, alas, if the quest for the all-mighty “boodle” by these duplicitous characters didn’t really make this a tale of today. Indeed.

Drew Johnson, vanishing before your eyes in a two-way-mirror stage effect, in City Lit's THE GILDED AGE-A TALE OF TODAY.The master jester’s saga of unscrupulous lobbyists, brazen bribes, a disingenuous murderess, invidious intrigue and outrageous blackmail practically seethes with déjà vu. Cleverly chronicled by Adam Goldstein, City Lit’s artful world premiere is a smooth-faced adaptation by Paul Edwards that delivers a well-deserved blast from the past. It’s also a rip-snorting yarn, with enough melodramatic flourishes to make it part morality play, part penny dreadful and part dime-store novel. (In the first act there’s also a pulse-pounding steamboat race that doesn’t end well.)

Not to be confused with a “golden age,” the stupendously selfish “Gilded Age,” of course, refers to the last third of the 19th century, a greedy era not unlike 2016 where the only “manifest destiny” was grand larceny: Railroad speculation, insider stock manipulation, land swindles, bank failures, illegal “privatizations,” and massive political corruption put a premium on show and trashed the truth. Taking the temperature of the times, Twain’s merry satire details an elaborate land fraud perpetrated to trick the U.S. treasury into buying 75,000 acres of worthless wilderness in order to give the feckless Hawkins’ family a public windfall. (The Congressional bill for this scam falsely promised the property to be used as a school for the recently “emancipated race.”)

The lead lobbyist in this connivance is a beautiful feminist nightmare named Laura Hawkins (Jacquelyne Jones, firing on all cylinders), adopted daughter of her needy Tennessee clan. In cahoots with her hopeful and easily duped younger brother Washington (sweet-faced Erik Burke), she invades Washington as Sherman did Atlanta. Among the “conspicuous captives” of her shakedown cruise, lovely Laura works her wiles on a compliant, ethically challenged senator (Mike Speller) and his staff. She seduces the chairman of the appropriations committee (Kevin Gladish) and a co-conspiring fellow lobbyist (Wesley Scott) and blackmails a resistant representative (Scott Olson) whose speech she steals.

But Laura, who shrewdly anticipates the merry murderesses of Cook County Jail from the musical Chicago, is after more than gain and goods: The unmarried Ms. Hawkins, who doesn’t believe in gun control (or just can’t control her gun), wants revenge against a Confederate colonel (Drew Johnson), a cad who did her wrong and never took her to the altar. Her sensational murder trial sparks the second act as much as does the climactic showdown on the bogus bill. Finally, Laura’s brief post-trial career includes a hilariously doomed stint as a public lecturer on women’s “revelations.” She never lives to discover what the play unfortunately omits–that the Tennessee estate wasn’t barren after all—it contained coal. Twain’s final laugh is practically on everyone.

Drew Johnson and Jacquelyne Jones in City Lit's THE GILDED AGE-A TALE OF TODAY.Along the mischievous way Twain has a ton of fun exposing caricatures who haven’t exactly disappeared from the bilious Beltway—culturally insecure parvenus, atavistic and aristocratic snobs with old money, gullible reporters, fake gentry, prevaricating press agents, bought judges, all-too-political prosecutors, and puffed-up plutocrats to rival today’s 1%.

The Gilded Age, in short, is a period-perfect expedition back to the future. City Lit’s sprightly staging, an election-year special, regales us with Sarah Watkins’ Victorian properties and a wonderfully false parquet floor, Caitlin McLeod’s class-conscious costumes, Paul Edwards’ evocative musical backdrop, and Becca Jefford’s unsparing lighting. This may not be Twain’s finest 12 chapters, but the all-American mocker exposes his twisted targets as he knew every bend of the Mississippi. Mark twain—and more!

photos by Paul Grigonis

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today
City Lit
Edgewater Presbyterian Church
1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave.
Fri & Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
(check for exceptions)
ends on February 21, 2016
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit City Lit

for Chicago Theater info, visit Theatre in Chicago

Leave a Comment